Pecan grower Robert Dickey was out on his family farm in Musella on Saturday afternoon when he got the call: A treacherous hurricane was brewing in the Atlantic potentially headed to Georgia.
As a farmer, weather changes can and often do impact the strawberries, peaches and pecans growing on his family’s 1,000-acre farm, so news of a powerful hurricane possibly heading his way is worrisome.
When Hurricane Michael hit in 2018, Dickey Farms lost thousands of dollars worth of pecans. Michael was the first major hurricane to hit Georgia – as a category 3 with winds of 115 mph – since the 1890s, according to the National Weather Service at the time.
Dickey, a Georgia state representative for House District 140 — which covers Crawford County and parts of Bibb, Houston, Monroe and Peach counties, was put on alert along with state and local officials across the state after reports that Hurricane Ian would make landfall along Florida’s Gulf Coast and then possibly head toward Georgia.
Dickey also is chairman of the state House Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Committee, one of Georgia’s most powerful legislative committees. A call from the Georgia Emergency Management Agency means mobilizing state resources against an advancing invader.
“If they have some terrible disaster, we’ve got things in place to get cleaned up, get electricity and water back on. So some of those basic things are in place. I’m updated daily – several times a day,” Dickey told State Affairs. “My [role] is more policy after the fact.”
Agriculture contributes more than $69 billion to the Georgia economy each year. As the nation’s top pecan producer, the last thing Georgia’s 430 pecan growers need is a major hurricane barreling through the state at the height of harvest season.
Hurricane Michael caused more than $2.5 billion in losses to Georgia’s agricultural industry, according to November 2018 estimates from the University of Georgia’s Cooperative Extension agents and agricultural economists.
Cotton and pecans were impacted most by Michael. Pecans suffered $100 million in direct losses to that year’s crop, $260 million in losses due to lost trees and $200 million in direct losses for future income.
Georgia’s cotton crop suffered between $550 and $600 million in direct losses due to Michael. Poultry suffered $20 million in direct losses to houses and $8 million in losses to birds.
Georgia’s vegetables suffered $480 million in direct losses, while timber was dealt $763 million in losses after Michael.
Meanwhile, ag-related organizations are preparing their members as much as possible.
The Georgia Pecan Growers Association is telling its members that the Farm Service Agency, along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has emergency plans, programs and guidelines as well as relief funds if Ian’s impact proves destructive, Mary Bruorton, a spokesperson for the TIfton-based pecan growers group, told State Affairs..
About a third of Bulloch County’s cotton crop is vulnerable because farmers have begun spraying to kill the leaves before harvest, UGA Extension Service’s Bill Tyson told Savannah TV station WTOC. Simultaneously, acres of peanuts are exposed to Ian’s fury as they sit above ground drying before being picked.
Georgia’s multi-million-dollar shrimp business could be affected by Ian as it cuts a catastrophic path through Florida on its way up the East Coast.
Shrimp are Georgia’s most valuable seafood crop, accounting for more than 80 percent of the seafood caught in the state. Between 4.5 million and 9.5 million pounds of heads-on shrimp are harvested each year by more than 500 boats based along the Georgia coast, concentrated mostly around Brunswick, Darien, Valona, Crescent and Richmond Hill. Shrimp season generally runs between mid-June and December in Georgia.
Efforts to reach the Georgia Shrimp Association were unsuccessful.
Gov. Brian Kemp declared a State of Emergency beginning Thursday at 7 a.m. and running through Sunday at 11:59 p.m.. The state’s power companies have dispersed weather safety tips to the public in conjunction with National Preparedness Month.
The governor is slated to give an update on the state’s Hurricane Ian response Thursday morning at 9 a.m. at Savannah International Airport.
For now, all Dickey and other farmers can do is hunker down. And wait.
Nonetheless, Dickey is nervous.
“For ag, our pecan trees are hanging heavy with pecans and our cotton’s there,” he said. “There’s not much you can do. It’s up to the Lord whether it comes. Hopefully, it’s not going to be as intense. We’ll brace somewhat, but I don’t know. We’re gonna get wind and rain.”
Dickey hopes Ian will be a less invasive storm than its predecessor Michael. “I’m optimistically hopeful that the damage will not be widespread,” he said.
It takes seven to eleven years for pecans to mature and pecan growers are just beginning to recover from the damage delivered by Hurricane Michael. Georgia’s pecan, cotton and poultry farms bore the brunt of that damage, racking up $1.2 billion of the carnage.
“A lot of our growers know what to do based on Hurricane Michael,” said Bruorton. And that’s mainly to hold off on any irrigation since Ian is expected to bring plenty of rain.
The potential loss of Georgia crops is a tough prospect for the nation and Georgians where residents already spend the fourth most in the nation on food, according to a study by Self Financial.
Meanwhile, the Georgia National Fair, which runs Oct. 6-16 in Perry, is not expected to be affected by Hurricane Ian, Dickey said. The Georgia State Fair starts Friday in Hampton and – as of Wednesday – is expected to proceed as scheduled.
Hurricane Ian evacuees and pets are welcomed at Georgia state parks. For details, check here.
Header photo: Georgia’s 430 pecan growers are at the height of their harvest season in late September. (Credit: Georgia Pecan Growers Association)
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