Hurricane crop damage is widespread

Hurricane Ivan, following closely on the heels of Hurricane Frances, slammed into the Alabama coastline during the third week of September and continued northward, causing major damage from the beaches of northwest Florida and Alabama to the mountains of North Carolina.

Together, the back-to-back hurricanes destroyed millions of dollars worth of cotton, peanuts and pecans in Alabama, Georgia, eastern Mississippi and the Florida Panhandle. The northward paths of both storms also wreaked havoc on the Carolinas, with Hurricane Frances alone accounting for $55 million in damages in North Carolina.

The eye of Hurricane Ivan came ashore in Gulf Shores, Ala., and continued to wreak havoc as it traveled northward. As a result, the southwest corner of the state received the greatest impact, according to officials with the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries.

It's still too early to determine the extent of the damage from Hurricane Ivan to the state's peanut crop, says Dallas Hartzog, Auburn University Extension agronomist. Growers harvested as quickly as their combines could cover ground, up until the time the storm hit, he says. Weather conditions from now until harvest will continue to be a major factor in the final outcome of Alabama's peanut crop, says Hartzog.

Southeast Alabama received anywhere from 2 to 8 inches of rainfall during Hurricane Ivan, according to William Birdsong, Auburn University Extension specialist. Areas closer to the eye of the hurricane received the most wind and rain, he adds.

“Cotton matured earlier in southern Alabama than it normally would in most years,” says Birdsong. “This was due to heavy moisture received in the beginning of the growing season, getting the crop off to a fast start. Drier weather during the heart of the season stressed the crop and caused it to mature more rapidly. Bolls were open in many fields when the storm hit, and much of the cotton was blown out of the burr and onto the ground,” he says.

Birdsong estimates a loss of about 60 percent of the cotton crop in the counties hardest hit by Ivan. “Both cotton and peanuts are ready to harvest. Normally, growers harvest most of their peanuts before cotton is ready. This situation is causing a labor shortage, and growers are having a hard time finding enough qualified people to operate cotton pickers,” he says.

In north Alabama, Franklin County Extension agent Tim Reed estimates that heavy winds and rain from Ivan could result in cotton yield losses of 50 to 100 pounds per acre.

As Hurricane Ivan approached, many elevators extended their hours of operation to facilitate farmers trying to harvest as much corn as possible before the storm hit. Much of the state's unharvested corn was blown down by the hurricane, but most of it can be salvaged, according to state agriculture officials.

Alabama Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks says that state's $9 million pecan crop appears to have been “mostly wiped out.” Because pecans were ripe when Ivan hit, farmers may be able to save some of them. But many trees were destroyed or heavily damaged, he says.

Hurricane Ivan pounded parts of Georgia with heavy rains, high winds and tornadoes. Moisture received from the storm varied greatly from one location to the next, according to the Georgia Agricultural Statistics Service. There were reports of downed trees, power outages, and damage to barns and farm equipment.

The two consecutive storms have slowed considerably the harvest of cotton, peanuts and pecans in Georgia. However, crop conditions overall were rated mostly good to fair except for pecans, which were mostly in poor to very poor condition.

University of Georgia Extension Cotton Specialist Steve M. Brown says Frances wiped out up to 25 percent of Georgia's cotton crop, and damages from Ivan could push those losses to 30 percent.

At least 30 percent of Georgia's cotton crop was ready to defoliate and harvest when Hurricane Frances hit, so wind and rain wreaked havoc on a substantial amount of acreage, says Brown.

“One county agent estimated local losses at 50 pounds per acre while another indicated that some early planted fields may have dropped as much as 80 percent of potential yield,” he says.

Ninety of Georgia's 159 counties were being considered in a request for a federal agricultural disaster declaration from Frances, which caused an estimated $100 million in crop losses. Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin expects additional counties to be added because of Ivan, which spawned tornadoes in the heavily agricultural western half of the state.

Hurricane Ivan spun off several tornadoes in the Florida Panhandle, in addition to dumping torrential rainfall. Some outer bands of rain from Ivan fell in scattered areas of the Peninsula, with some localities escaping the full effects of the storm.

Several Florida weather stations recorded less than one half inch of rain for the week of Sept. 13-19, with a few localities reporting less than one tenth inch, including Apopka, Dover, Fort Lauderdale, Fort Pierce, Immokalee and Pierson. Many areas in the Panhandle, however, received more than 4 inches of rainfall, with Graceville reporting 5 inches for the week. Intense winds tossed crops, and heavy rains flooded fields in areas affected by the storm.

Immediately following the storm, soggy soils were slowing peanut digging in the Panhandle, with many producers unable to put heavy equipment into fields. A small amount of acreage had been dug for drying prior to the storm, and vines were rotting due to excessive moisture. Peanut conditions in Florida are rated as 25 percent fair, 35 percent good and 40 percent excellent.

Heavy rains and strong winds from Hurricane Ivan also affected a portion of the cotton crop in the Florida Panhandle, with many growers still assessing the actual damage. In addition, the storm delayed corn harvesting in the region, and caused heavy losses to the pecan crop in Jefferson County, Fla. Most topsoil and subsoil moisture supplies are surplus in the Panhandle and adequate to surplus over the Peninsula.

Field preparation for vegetable production continued in the central and southern Peninsula counties, while producers in the Quincy area were evaluating damage to the tomato crop.

Agricultural officials in Florida have estimated that losses from Hurricane Frances and Charley — an earlier storm — exceed $2 billion or more than 30 percent of Florida's $6.4 billion in annual crop cash receipts.

Meanwhile, in North Carolina, Hurricane Frances appears to have done more damage than Ivan.

“Generally, what we're hearing is that the damage done by Hurricane Frances took out all of the bottomland crops, so when Ivan arrived, there wasn't much other damage left to occur, other than heavy rainfall,” says Bob Murphy, state statistician with the North Carolina Agricultural Statistics Service.

Both storms have caused major problems with erosion, he adds.

Hurricane Frances, which hit western North Carolina, caused an estimated $55 million in damages. Frances hit nursery and vegetable crops especially hard. Of the $55 million in damages, $39.6 million was nursery crops, $4.9 million was fruit and vegetables; $5.5 million was tobacco, $3.3 million was corn, and $1 million was hay.

RAVAGED COTTON FIELDS such as this one in east Alabama were common sights as the eye of Hurricane Ivan passed through the state in mid-September, bringing high winds and torrential rainfall.

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