SUMMERDALE, Alabama — Baldwin County farmers, along with state and local officials, are continuing to assess the impacts of Hurricane Sally and Hurricane Zeta along the Gulf Coast.
Dr. Adam Rabinowitz, assistant professor and Extension Specialist, agricultural economics and rural sociology, at Auburn University, said while it is still too early to give a specific dollar figure to the amount of damage incurred by the recent storms, impacts were significant when it comes to pecans, soybeans, cotton and peanuts, particularly in Baldwin County.
“We are still in the process of evaluating how widespread the damage was,” he said following Hurricane Sally. “In terms of impact, we don’t believe there was widespread damages from this storm, but there were definitely devastating effects for farmers in Baldwin County.”
The county’s pecan crop was definitely the hardest hit by Hurricane Sally with most farmers losing most if not all of this year’s, and possibly next year’s, harvest with a significant amount of damage to the county’s tree population.
“We have about 60 acres in three locations and pretty much lost our entire crop for this year and next year, possibly for the next couple of years,” said Elberta farmer Hope Cassebaum, who also served as president of the Baldwin County Farmers Federation. “We probably lost about half of our trees, but right now we’ve been working to get other crops harvested and haven’t been able to do any cleanup.”
The good news for them, Cassebaum said, is that they have about 800 trees planted that are two to three years old that had little to no damage.
Cassebaum also reported damages to their family’s cotton and soybean crops.
Overall, Baldwin County’s pecan farmers took the hardest hit from Hurricane Sally, Cassebaum said, with several farmers losing their entire crop and a good number of trees.
Gary Underwood, owner of Underwood Pecan Farm in Summerdale, said they harvest about 115 acres in Summerdale and Foley with a shelling and retail operation.
“This was looking like one of the biggest crops we’ve ever had, and we pretty much lost it all,” Underwood said.
Underwood estimates that in addition to losing the crop for this year, he and his wife Billie Jo have lost at least half or more, around 700 trees total, on the 60 acres they farm in Summerdale, plus 40 acres that has owned by three generations of his family in Foley and another 15 acres he harvests for the Engel family in Summerdale.
“I think we’ll definitely replant on the property here in Summerdale,” he said. “(As far as the Engel property), that is really up to them, but we’re in the process of clearing the property and once we get that done, we’ll assess the total damage and go from there.”
Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue toured Underwood’s farm on Sept. 28 and on Oct. 26, Congressman Bradley Byrne (R-Alabama) released a statement saying that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has made an agricultural disaster designation for counties in Alabama affected by Hurricane Sally.
Baldwin and Mobile counties have been designated primary natural disaster areas, and Clarke, Escambia, Monroe, and Washington were named “contiguous counties” in the declaration, making them eligible for assistance as well, Byrne said.
Farmers should contact their local FSA office for information on how to apply for assistance. Additional information on USDA’s disaster assistance program, including county lists and maps, can be found at disaster.fsa.usda.gov.
“I truly believe having (Perdue) here was more important that if we’d been able to get the president here,” Underwood said. “Just him being here and seeing the damage I believe made all the difference in the world for us.”
Adam Bertolla, who farms 100 acres of pecan trees with his brother Ray in Loxley, said they may have lost about a third of the trees planted, but hopes to salvage something out of this year’s crop.
“We’re still hoping we can scrape up some type of harvest,” he said, “but we’ve probably lost at least 80 percent of this year’s crop.”
Bertolla said they also received significant damage to this year’s cotton crop following Hurricane Sally along with quite a bit of damage to their timber market.
“We may have lost 60 to 70 percent of 350 acres (of cotton) planted,” Bertolla said. “We really can’t tell at this point the extent of the damage (to the timber crop), but I know we had quite a bit.”
Robertsdale farmer Tim Mullek reported significant losses for cotton and peanuts from land harvested in Robertsdale, Summerdale, Elberta and Magnolia Springs.
“We started digging peanuts on Sept. 30 and we’re still digging,” Mullek said just days before Hurricane Zeta zipped through the area in late October. “I’d say we’re in the 10 to 20 percent range (as far as losses), but it might be closer to 10 percent. I know a lot of farmers experienced more damage than we did.”
Mullek said they started planting peanuts late in the season and planted a longer-season variety than some other farmers.
“I know there were some farmers in Baldwin County that harvested peanuts early before the storm hit and their quality was about half what it should have been,” he said. “Then there were others that had peanuts that needed to be harvested on Sept. 16 or 17 but weren’t able to get in and harvest. I’d say they probably had losses in the 20 to 50 percent range.”
As far as cotton, Mullek said, their losses varied greatly depending on where they were harvesting.
“Initially I thought we might be in the 50 percent range,” Mullek said before Zeta. “But then we harvested a field in Miflin that yielded about 630 pounds, which is about a third of what it should be. In Magnolia Springs we harvested at about 800 to 950 pounds, which is about where it should be, so we’re looking at losses from Sally in the 10 percent range.”
Following Zeta, Mullek said cotton losses ranged from 100 to 250 pounds from the normal 800 to 800 pound per acre crop, largely spared from significant rainfall.
“We’ve got cotton on the ground and I know there were a lot of areas that got it worse than we did,” he said, “particularly in north Baldwin and in Escambia and Monroe counties.”
Mullek said as far as he was concerned, he did not see significant damage to peanuts caused by Hurricane Zeta.
Following Hurricane Zeta, the Alabama Farmers Federation issued a release stating that farmers from Mobile County to Cherokee County reported significant losses from Zeta, particularly cotton.
“We have farmers who are reporting a complete loss on any cotton they had not yet harvested,” said Carla Hornady, Alabama Farmers Federation Cotton; Soybean; and Wheat & Feed Grain divisions director. “For those who do still have a salvageable crop, the quality and yield will be much lower than anticipated before Zeta. It’s devastating, especially for our farmers in Alabama’s Black Belt and coastal counties.”
Farmers also have reported damage to their soybean crops as high winds whipped the stalks around, making harvest more difficult. Additionally, power outages create concerns for farmers who often rely on electric-powered wells to provide water to their homes and livestock.
Agricultural damage was widespread and impacted numerous commodities. Additional reports include: