All Posts September 29, 2020

Pensacola News Journal
Colin Warren-Hicks
September 29, 2020

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue on Monday toured farms in Alabama and Florida to inspect the damage wrought by Hurricane Sally and hear from local farmers, many of whom said they expect to lose about half of their harvest due to the storm.

Perdue made stops in Summerdale and Loxley, Alabama, before ending his day at a townhall-style meeting at the Jenkins Farm in Jay, where he was joined by U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz.

“I’ve seen crops that have been probably cut in half, cotton that was virtually ready to be harvested, peanuts that were ready to be harvested, down to half a crop,” he told the News Journal after concluding the tour.

“And there is not that type of margin in agriculture. They needed every pound of cotton and peanuts in order to make a profit this year. They are going to face damages here that will have to rely on crop insurance … to compensate.”

Perdue told the roughly 40 farmers gathered Monday inside the Jenkins Farm machine shop that there was a chance they could receive a similar type of federal relief as they did after Hurricane Michael.

In 2018, after Hurricane Michael hit the eastern Panhandle and Hurricane Florence struck the East Coast, some Florida farmers benefitted from ad hoc disaster assistance when bills granting millions of dollars of federal relief funding for livestock agricultural losses passed through Congress.

“Michael was an ad hoc disaster where money was appropriated by Congress to be allocated to the people who suffered the most damage in those areas,” Perdue said. “We don’t have one of those for 2020.”

Perdue said he would advocate at the highest levels of government for farmers to receive such funding again, only this time for Hurricane Sally relief.

“We will advocate, obviously. I’m on the way to Louisiana soon to see the damages from Laura. We’ve got damages from freeze and flooding up in the Midwest. So cumulatively there may be,” he said about the possibility of some form ad hoc assistance.

“It would be probably hard at this point, right now, from what I have seen thus far, to advocate for Congress,” he said. “But we provide technical assist for them and give them the facts, and then, they’ll make that determination.”

According to Perdue, several safety net programs were triggered when the president declared parts of Florida and Alabama a major disaster in the wake of Hurricane Sally. Among those are lower-interest loans for farmers and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which offers financial assistance to to “repair fences and other damages to the farmstead,” he said.

Farmers expect to lose up to half their harvest

Hurricane Sally impacted 100,000 acres of peanuts, 100,000 acres of cotton and 100,000 acres of hay across the state, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. About 10,000 acres of corn and 4,000 acres encompassing horse farms, seafood, aquaculture, pecans, walnuts and timber were also hit hard by the storm.

Economists at the University of Florida predict the combined losses of crops, livestock and aquaculture across the state to cost between $55 million and $100 million.

The primary crops grown in northern Escambia and Santa Rosa counties are cotton, corn, peanuts and soy beans. But typically cotton is the big cash crop, and many of the farmers who sat before Perdue on Monday predicted they would ultimate lose upwards of half of their year’s cotton harvests due to Hurricane Sally.

“The wind and rain laid it down,” said Alan Edwards, about his cotton.

Edwards, a fifth-generation farmer whose family has sown seeds in Santa Rosa County soil for over 50 years, told the News Journal that he would be happy if he could salvage half of his 350 acres of cotton after Sally.

Edwards explained that once a cotton plant is knocked over, it does not upright itself. When the top of the plant hits the ground, the bolls — the shell protecting the cotton seeds and white, fluffy puffs — come into contact with the dirt, and after a storm, the moisture trapped in the soil rots the contents of the bolls. The result, feared by generations of cotton farmers, is called boll rot.

Even if some of the fallen cotton can be harvested, Edwards said the quality will be lower and he’ll have to sell it for less.

“They can dock you anywhere from a nickel a pound and up from that at the market,” he said. “They’ll get everything they can from you.”

Burlin Findley, who grows peanuts, corn, wheat, oaks and cotton on 500 acres in Santa Rosa County, told the News Journal that he was facing a similar situation to the other farmers he knows in the area.

“It blew some corn down that I haven’t gotten harvested yet, and it blew the cotton and laid it on the ground. … It may look like It’s fair cotton, but it will be light and not weight up,” Findley said. “It’s going to be a pretty good cut and yield. About 50% of what we would have made.”

Henry Lowry, who owns 1,200 acres of local farmland, nodded along to Findley’s words as he spoke, agreeing that a lot of farmers in Northwest Florida now find themselves in a similar situation.

Still, they said, Perdue’s visit offered some relief.

“When the head man comes down to Jay, Florida to listen and lend a little support, it makes you feel a little bit better,” Findley said. “It makes you feel good that they’re listening.”

Colin Warren-Hicks can be reached at colinwarrenhicks@pnj.com or 850-435-8680.