Hurricane Michael Destroys Cotton Crop of 'a Lifetime,' Ravages Peanuts, Chickens and More Agriculture

In Southeast Alabama's Wiregrass region, known for its fertile soil and productive farms, the 2018 cotton crop was shaping up as perhaps a "once in a lifetime" crop. Then along came Hurricane Michael, ripping through the lower, eastern corner of Alabama on its way from the Florida Panhandle into Georgia on Wednesday.

Across Georgia, agriculture crops, including cotton, suffered similar extensive damage, with some farmers suffering total losses as assessments continued. In Alabama, most counties across the state escaped damage from Michael, but a handful of agricultural counties in the Wiregrass region that rely heavily on cotton, which is more susceptible to the elements than other crops, were not so lucky.

As this fall's cotton harvest neared, with white fluffs abundantly emerging at record or near-record yields, Michael tore across the Southeast as a storm of a lifetime, one of the most powerful hurricanes to ever hit the United States in the history of record keeping.

Farmer Matt Haney told ABC 31 he's heard from farmers in South Alabama, Florida, and Georgia who have lost their entire cotton crop. You can't help but feel for them, he said.

"You just feel so bad for them because they've worked all year long to get the crop to here and then just lose it," Haney told the Alabama news station.

Some Alabama farmers were counting on cotton yields of 1,000 pounds of cotton per acre or more, with some expecting 1,200 to 1,500 and more when 800 to 1,200 has been normal in previous years, according to William Birdsong and Brandon Dillard, agronomists with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System and Auburn University.

Speaking to Al.com, Birdsong and Dillard said cotton plants were in the process of dropping off leaves, the final step before harvesting. But the lack of leaves made the mature cotton plants more vulnerable to the storm, leaving the abundant cotton more exposed.

"This was going to be, for southeast Alabama, one of the best crops that we had ever made as a region," Birdsong said. "I was hearing reports of some yields of 1,500, 1,800 pounds per acre before this storm, which is very unusual, record-setting yields by farmers."

But Michael changed everything late Wednesday, charging inland across the corner of southeast Alabama at Category 2 hurricane strength after making landfall in the Florida Panhandle, near Mexico Beach, at Category 4 strength, with maximum sustained winds of 155 miles per hour.

Alabama farmer Fred Helms, whose Rehobeth farm is about 70 miles from the coast, said Michael stripped away one of his best cotton crops ever.

"This year yields looked good for peanuts and cotton, probably our best in 10 years," Helms said, according to a release from the Alabama Farmers Federation. "The cotton would have picked 1,000 pounds an acre before. It might pick 350 pounds now."

In Georgia, which experienced a direct path attack from Michael Wednesday into Thursday as the storm made its way north and east, the cotton crop may have been a total loss, along with other significant agricultural damage. Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture Gary Black said in a release that crops, animals and infrastructure have all taken a substantial loss because of the storm. He said Michael's damaging winds drove much of the cotton crop to the ground for a total loss, or tangled it, making it harder to extract clean lint during the ginning process.

"A farmer never wants to work all year and toil for something to lose it in the end to something unexpected, such as a storm," Birdsong said, according to Al.com. "But to lose an exceptional crop, maybe even a once in a lifetime or once in a 20-year period–type crop, then that's even more disheartening."

In Georgia, Black said that 84 chicken houses, estimated to have held more than 2 million chickens, were destroyed and that farms, dairies and processing plants affected were in Appling, Colquitt, Coffee, Decatur, Evans, Houston, Mitchell, Randolph, Lee and Wilcox counties, according to the Associated Press. Poultry contributes $23.3 billion to Georgia's economy, and the industry has reported the most widespread power outages and losses, Black said.

Assessments for peanuts and pecans are ongoing in Georgia.

As for the cotton in Alabama, some of that record crop was spared since it was not a total loss, but after Michael it isn't the same.

"High wind and rain can fill cotton with debris, reducing quality," said Carla Hornady, the Alabama Farmers Federation's Cotton, Soybean and Wheat and Feed Grain division director. "Recovery won't be easy, and there are still crops to gather."

Hurricane Michael Destroys Cotton Crop of 'a Lifetime,' Ravages Peanuts, Chickens and More Agriculture | U.S.