Hurricane Idalia hits Southeast Georgia farmers hard
Posted on Sep 13, 2023 at 14:37 PM
By Jennifer Whittaker & Jay Stone
Hurricane Idalia had a sweet name but left bitter bruises on Georgia farms and rural communities after sweeping across Southeast Georgia on Aug. 30. Idalia was a Category 2 storm when the storm eye blew across the Florida/Georgia line into Lowndes County about 10 a.m. According to the National Hurricane Center, Category 2 storms have sustained winds of 96-110 mph.
By 11 a.m. Idalia was downgraded to a Category 1 storm (sustained winds of 74-95 mph) as she continued to whirl in a northeast direction toward South Carolina. By 5:30 p.m. Idalia was a Tropical Storm moving at 21 mph when she reached the South Carolina line according to published reports.
Initial assessment reports released by the Georgia Department of Agriculture and UGA Extension detailed major agriculture damage in Brooks, Ben Hill, Berrien, Coffee, Cook, Crisp, Echols, Irwin, Lanier, Lowndes, Pierce, Thomas and Wilcox counties.
Idalia uprooted pecan trees, blew over corn and cotton stalks, battered vegetable plants, and tossed tobacco leaves to the ground. She also damaged farm equipment, sheds and fences. Numerous farmers had to run generators to keep their dairy and swine barns, poultry houses, tobacco curing barns and wells operating for days until power was restored.
Georgia Farm Bureau media spoke to multiple farmers across the storm’s path to get an idea of the impact Idalia had on Georgia agriculture.
Georgia pecan growers were about a month away from starting to harvest early pecan varieties when Idalia hit. The trees were laden with still-maturing nuts and the heavy green hulls that hold the nuts until they mature, and the hulls crack, turn brown and drop to the ground with the unshelled pecans.
For the pecan sector, initial assessments indicate Idalia did the most damage to orchards in Thomas, Brooks, Lowndes, Berrien, Cook, Irwin, Lanier, Ware and Pierce counties, according to UGA Extension Pecan Specialist Lenny Wells. Pecan orchards were also hit in counties extending toward Savannah, but the damage was more sporadic and less severe, Wells said.
Buck Paulk of Shiloh Pecan Farms & Shiloh Pecan Farms Nursery headquartered in Lowndes County and lifelong growers James and Linda Exum of Brooks County were among the many pecan growers to be left with uprooted trees and crop loss.
“Thousands of trees have been lost from the state line up to Berrien and Cook counties. Several large growers have reported an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 trees down from their orchards,” Wells wrote in a Sept. 1 report.
“We’ve had damage from other tropical storms, but for us it’s the worst we’ve had in my lifetime,” said Paulk. “I don’t know the exact number of trees we’ve lost but I’m thinking that as of today [Sept. 1] we had about 10,000 trees uprooted.”
The Paulks have about 4,000 acres of pecan trees spread out across multiple counties.
In this most severely impacted area, Wells said percentage of downed trees in damaged orchards range from 30%-80% of total orchard trees. Most of the trees uprooted or left leaning were 20 years and under, Wells said.
“Orchards that are 20 years or younger are more limber. As the winds push and pull these trees, it’s like grabbing a fence post, and then they topple over,” Paulk said. “Especially trees under ten years old. These trees were loaded with a good crop and they can’t withstand 70 mile per hour winds combined with six inches of rain.”
James Exum, who serves on the Georgia Farm Bureau Pecan Advisory Committee, estimates Idalia uprooted about 400 trees on his 200 acres of orchards located in Morven.
“You not only lose the tree, but you lose its future production,” James explained. “It’ll take 20 years to get back to where we were the day before the hurricane.”
"Some parts of our orchards look like a bomb was dropped on it," Linda said. "Some of this damage James and I will never see the farm recover from in our lifetime."
Growers in Idalia’s path also experienced crop loss from nuts being blown to the ground and limbs, heavy with nuts breaking.
“When Idalia hit, these trees were at their most vulnerable stage because of all the nuts on them and the nuts were still in the hulls maturing,” Paulk explained. “Even if a tree wasn’t blown over or left leaning, I think about half of our crop is on the ground.”
“In these hardest hit counties, crop loss could range between 50 to 80% depending on the orchard,” Wells said. “In the hardest hit areas, it is approaching Michael scale. Those that got hit, got hit bad, but from a state perspective the damage is far less than Michael.”
Wells estimated Georgia pecan orchards would have produced between 85-100 million pounds this fall before Idalia struck.
“This was going to be a slightly below average crop overall even before the storm,” Wells said. “As far as crop loss is concerned, this region probably produces about one-third of the state crop.”
Pecan growers hit by Idalia will have to clean up their orchards before they can begin their harvest.
“We have orchards scattered around and they were all hit whether it’s uprooted trees or broken limbs and nuts scattered on the ground,” said Linda Exum. “There’s a crop out there still, but we have a lot of cleaning up to do to get to it. Hurricane Michael didn’t do us this bad and we spent six weeks cleaning up from that storm. It’s just devastating.”
If a tree is leaning less than 30 degrees, the Paulks will stand it back up to see if it will live.
“If a tree is leaning more than 30 degrees it isn’t viable,” Paulk said. “We’ll saw off any uprooted trees or leaning trees we know won’t make it at the trunk, haul them out of the orchard and burn or chip them.”
Paulk estimates it will take his farm employees about a month to clean up all of the storm debris in his orchards.
In Coffee County, power outages resulting from Idalia led to multiple poultry producers losing flocks of chickens.
According to Coffee County grower Walt Pridgen, who did not lose birds, after the storm blew through and temperatures rose into the 90s, generators powering environmental systems inside the affected poultry houses overheated and turned off, and the flocks inside succumbed to the heat.
“It’s basically just a huge loss of revenue,” Pridgen said. “That chicken that is going to be sold can’t be sold and there’s not really anything you can do.”
Georgia tobacco growers had finished harvesting most of their crop when Idalia hit.
Growers were wrapping up the third stage of their harvest when they remove the remaining leaves from the top of the tobacco stalk.
The percentage of the crop farmers lost to Idalia varies depending on how many acres they had left to harvest and severity of wind damage. Daniel Johnson who grows tobacco in Pierce and Bacon counties had 65 acres left to harvest on Aug. 30 and estimates he lost 20% of the crop on this acreage.
In Echols County, Stanley Corbett grows tobacco and other row crops with his sons Bo, Clay and Cody. The Corbetts had about 15 acres of tobacco left to harvest when Idalia arrived. Fortunately, the Corbetts’ sandy soil doesn’t retain moisture long, so they were able to finish harvesting their crop on Saturday, Sept. 2 without worrying about the equipment bogging down.
“Unharvested tobacco deteriorates fast after a tropical storm or hurricane comes through. We’ve learned from experience that you have to get it harvested in five days after a storm,” Bo said.
Tobacco growers across Southeast Georgia continue to harvest the last of their crop.
“Machines were back in the field within days of the hurricane and will continue on at least two farms until late next week,” UGA Extension Tobacco Agronomist J. Michael Moore said Sept. 12.
For the Corbetts, and many other growers who lost power during the storm, their biggest problem immediately after Idalia passed was having enough generators to run fans on their tobacco curing barns to keep recently harvested tobacco from sweating and molding.
“Growers did a great job with generators keeping the air going through the barns and most of them came out pretty good,” said Moore.
The Corbetts were without power for 37 hours, so they rotated 6 generators amongst 40 of their curing barns that contained just-harvested, uncured tobacco to keep fans blowing outside air on the leaves so they wouldn’t sweat and mold.
Bo said each of them took a section of the barns to look after. One generator could run the fans on four barns at one time, so they sometimes napped in their trucks for an hour until it was time to move a generator to another four barns in their section.
Based on a mid-August prediction by WALB meteorologist Chris Zelman that a hurricane would hit Florida and likely cross Southeast Georgia the end of August, the Corbetts made arrangements to rent four generators from a company in Tampa to supplement the two they have.
Damaged sheds & equipment
Stanley Corbett and his sons were still outside working to wire up generators to run their tobacco curing barns when Idalia hit their Echols County farm. They took shelter in a nearby steel-framed metal equipment shed.
Fortunately, God lead the Corbetts to the right shed to ride out the storm. While Idalia left the shed they were in untouched, she ripped off the roof of a nearby shed used to store their equipment parts.
Bo said he thinks the reason the roof was ripped off this shed, which they had made, was because the tin roof hung over the top of the side walls so as the storm swept through, wind got caught up under the overhang, seeped in under the roof and lifted it off. The damaged shed also has wooden framing instead of steel.
“We’ve been joking that Tyson Buildings, who built our undamaged sheds, needs to come out here and do a commercial since all of their sheds made it through with no damage,” Bo said.
On Sept. 1, the family was also counting their blessings that none of their 77 curing barns were damaged. Many of them were located yards away from the roofless parts shed.
“I’ve lived on this farm all my life – 64 years – and I don’t remember anything like this in my lifetime,” Stanley said. “If this was a Category One or Two hurricane, I feel for the people who have lived through a Category Four or Five. God took care of us. None of our family was hurt and none of the tobacco barns where our crop is stored were hurt.”
Idalia did rip off the roof of their sprayer cab and mangled the top frame of one of their tobacco harvesters. Bo said both can be repaired.
Not far from the Corbetts, Idalia blew over an equipment shed and overturned a livestock hauling truck at cattle producer Mike Coggins’ farm.
Flattened grain corn
Stanley Corbett and his sons grow about 300 acres of grain corn to feed their cattle. The acreage is split between two fields on different parts of the farm. They managed to combine about five acres before Idalia hit Aug. 30. They were planning to go full steam into harvesting the corn on August 31, but Idalia changed those plans.
Idalia flattened almost all their corn crop.
“These stalks won’t spring back up on their own,” Bo said.
But he’s hopeful that the corn combine head will lift the flattened stalks up so they can harvest most of the corn.
“We have to laugh to keep from crying, so now we’ve been joking that we’ll have a real good bird shoot when the time comes,” Bo said.
Berrien County farmer Morgan Hendley had his entire corn crop, approximately 300 acres, blown over by the hurricane. He said he was going to harvest what was there to see what was salvageable and come as close as he could to fulfilling his sales contracts.
Hendley said it was too early to tell about his peanut crop, and he lost some pecan trees.
“We’ll get what we can get, and hope the insurance covers the rest of it,” he said. Hendley noted that a lot of the bolls in his cotton fields are opening prematurely, and that a total of 10 inches of rain over two days, followed by intense heat, makes the peanut crop susceptible to disease.
“That environment is a feeding ground for white mold, and we can’t get in the field to spray it,” Hendley said. “We’ve been through tropical storms before and hurricanes, but nothing of this magnitude. We’ve had close calls, but nothing I’ve seen in my lifetime was as bad as this.”
Also in Berrien County, swine producer Terry Danforth estimated he lost 20-25% of his corn, which he grows to feed his pigs. He had to rotate generators among his swine houses in order to operate feed and watering systems.
“Our biggest loss is going to be the corn blown down,” Danforth said. “We’re very blessed compared to folks around us and folks further south.”
Vegetable crop damage
Justin Corbett and his brother, Jared, farm together as Corbett Brothers Farms headquartered in Echols County. They raise a variety of vegetables – bell peppers, specialty peppers, squash, eggplants and cucumbers on fields spread across Echols, Lowndes and Lanier counties in Georgia and Madison and Hamilton counties right across the Florida line.
Farms in each county took a beating from Idalia. Damage included wind-whipped broken plants, ripped plastic on the raised beds, and lack of power needed to run their irrigation systems.
Justin and Jared are the nephews of Stanley Corbett mentioned earlier in this article.
When Idalia struck on Aug. 30, the Corbett Brothers were a week away from harvesting their squash and eggplant crops.
“Our squash probably took it the worst,” Justin said.
They won’t be able to sell any vegetables scarred by the wind or sand blasted.
Idalia’s winds randomly broke off large bell pepper plants that were about six weeks old when Idalia struck Aug. 30. Some plants were left leaning.
“It was looking like a good crop, but we’ve lost a bunch of our plant population throughout the field,” Justin said.
“It’s still too early to give a crop loss percentage or dollar amount of damage. I hope we can salvage some of it, but it will depend on how well these plants respond,” Justin said. “We’re worried about yield loss for all our crops. We already have it hard enough with the thin profit margins we have to work with, but to potentially lose a significant part of your crop is hard.”
In another huge field of pepper plants that were only two weeks old when Idalia struck Aug. 30. Justin Corbett estimates they have lost 50% of their pepper plants to the storm.
“We’ll let this field sit until next week to see which plants put back out and replant those that don’t,” Justin said. “I always try to have extra transplants on hand to replace any that don’t make it but I won’t be able to get enough plants to replace everything we need to.”
Idalia ripped a lot of the plastic the Corbetts use to cover their raised vegetable beds. The plastic is important because it helps hold moisture in the bed when they water the plants with drip irrigation hoses. The plastic also sheds rainwater off the vegetable beds so the roots of the vegetable plants don’t get too wet or drown in the event of a heavy rain storm.
After clearing the roads going to their fields of tree debris on the afternoon of Aug. 30, the Corbetts had farm employees repairing and replacing damaged plastic.
“We had a crew of 150 guys start repairing plastic at 4:30 Wednesday afternoon and worked until dark,” Justin said. “We had to do this so the wind wouldn’t keep whipping the plastic around breaking the plants.”
In Echols County, produce growers sustained wind damage, according to County Extension Coordinator Justin Sheeley, who noted that there was significant damage to plastic sheeting use in some produce crops.
“The plastic was blown up on pepper, squash, tomatoes and cucumber,” Shealey said. “It will have to be replaced, and what was already planted will have to be replanted.”
Cotton growers in multiple counties across Southeast Georgia reported having cotton stalks left blown over or twisted at the roots. Damage estimates were not available at press time as the extent to the state crop may not be discernable until later in the harvest season. Damage to growers’ crops will also depend on the stage of the crop when Idalia hit.
Early maturing varieties may have had mature or almost mature bolls knocked off while later planted crops may have still been blooming and setting cotton bolls.
In Berrien County, Tim McMillan said one of his biggest concerns is cotton.
“Some was blown out and on the ground,” McMillan said. “Stalks are tangled up with each other. We won’t be able to spray with high boy. We’ll have to hire a plane.”
McMillan, who grows approximately 400 acres of cotton, said about 20% of the bolls were open when the storm came through.
“What we don’t know is how much of that we’ve lost,” he said.
How to report ag damage on your farm.
Farmers are still assessing their damages and reporting to the Georgia Department of Agriculture (GDA) and the Georgia Farm Service Agency. Farmers with damage should contact their local USDA Service Center/Farm Service Agency office to ask about the various emergency disaster programs already in place that offer assistance to farmers following natural disasters.
Farmers are also encouraged to report damage to the GDA via their online reporting form at