WASHINGTON — It was a hurricane season that saw several active storms even if the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as late as Aug. 9 lowered its forecast to 30% for an above-normal hurricane season, calling for 9 to 13 named storms, including zero to two major hurricanes. Then came September’s Florence and Gordon and October’s Michael that inflicted huge swaths of damage across parts of the Southeastern U.S. Last week Hurricane Willa in the eastern Pacific was expected to contribute to rainfall as far away as the East coast, including the first nor’easter of the season.
Since September, the hardest hit states have been North Carolina and Georgia, although South Carolina, Alabama, northern Florida and other states also sustained considerable damage. While those states don’t stack up in national agricultural prominence with the likes of California, Iowa or Illinois, they still are important for livestock and poultry and for specific crops, damage of which mostly depended on harvest progress before the storms hit.
The region has significant hog and poultry operations, field crops including corn, soybeans, cotton, peanuts and tobacco, as well as pecan orchards and other crops. According to the most recent Census of Agriculture, North Carolina ranked first in the United States in tobacco and combined poultry and egg production and was second in hogs and pigs and Christmas trees. Georgia was No. 1 in peanut production, broilers and meat-type chickens and quail, and was second in cotton and combined poultry and eggs.
“Unfortunately, our worst thoughts were realized,” said Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary W. Black concerning Hurricane Michael. “We saw months and sometimes years of work just laid over on the ground in a matter of seconds.”
Estimated losses in Georgia included $300 million to $800 million in cotton (after earlier expectations of record high yields), $480 million in vegetables, $560 million in pecans, $25 million in poultry (97 poultry houses and more than 2 million chickens were lost), $10 million to $20 million in peanuts and $1 billion in timber.
Losses to pecan orchards were 100% in some counties in Georgia, which accounts for 35% to 40% of U.S. pecan production in any given year. The pecan harvest had just begun prior to the arrival of Hurricane Michael and was 11% collected as of Oct. 21. Good-to-excellent ratings for Georgia pecans were 79% on Oct. 7 and 26% on Oct. 21.
“The effect that this storm (Michael) had will continue for years to come,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Georgia state office said in its Oct. 23 Pecan Report. “The devastation is overwhelming especially in the south and west areas of the state. Those trees that have been hit will take two to three years to get back into full production.”
In its Oct. 15 weekly crop update, the U.S.D.A. field office in Georgia said, “Hurricane Michael devastated our crops, particularly cotton and pecans.” Exposed cotton was blown off plants, while rains discolored fibers and lowered values.
In Georgia, corn was 87% harvested as of Sept. 9, peanuts at 1% and cotton and soybeans both at zero, with good-to-excellent ratings at 62% for cotton, 70% for soybeans and 76% for peanuts. As of Oct. 21, the ratings were 16% for cotton and 47% for soybeans with peanuts at 51% on Oct. 14.
Hurricane Michael hit Georgia the hardest while North Carolina took a direct hit from Hurricane Florence in early September. Good-to-excellent ratings in North Carolina on Sept. 10 were 41% for corn, 62% for cotton, 68% for peanuts and 59% for soybeans. As of Oct. 21, the ratings were 31% for cotton, 36% for peanuts and 45% for soybeans, with the final rating for corn on Oct. 7 at 33%. As of Oct. 21 corn was 93% harvested, with cotton at 30%, peanuts at 47% and soybeans at 23%. Tobacco in North Carolina, which accounts for 45% to 50% of U.S. production, suffered damage in drying barns as well as in the fields.
Despite the devastation wrought by the hurricanes across the Southeast, the overall impact on commodity supplies and prices across the United States has been minimal, in part because production in other states will tend to offset the losses and the storms missed key citrus and sugar cane areas in Florida. The jury still is out on the impact of pecan prices and supplies.
With only about a month left in the 2018 Atlantic hurricane season (June 1 to Nov. 30), those in the Southeast finally can breathe a sigh of relief as they rebuild from the destruction of this year’s tropical storms and prepare for the 2019 hurricane season.