Cotton farmers in Georgia, Florida and Alabama are facing multi-million dollar losses after the Southeastern crop was battered by four hurricanes over a six-week period.
While the destruction is still being assessed from the compound effects of Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne, one fact is inescapable — a sizeable portion of a cotton crop that was reaching or already at maturity was severely damaged or destroyed. Producers had spent millions of dollars — from fertilization and irrigation to plant protection and defoliation — to get this crop to the harvest stage only to see it devastated by the hurricanes' wind and rain.
Damage to the cotton crop from Jeanne is still being tallied.
Preliminary estimates from the first three storms obtained by National Cotton Council (NCC) staff from its members and state Extension personnel show that about 750,000 bales valued at more than $205 million were lost in Georgia, Alabama and Florida. The estimates, which reflect both the lost lint and cottonseed, are: Alabama, approximately 275,000 bales valued at $77 million; Georgia, more than 400,000 bales valued at $112 million; and Florida, about 60,000 bales valued at $17 million. The estimates, which do not reflect losses that will be sustained from the quality discounts on cotton that producers do manage to harvest, will be re-assessed as harvest progresses.
Georgia Extension Economist Don Shurley said that because Jeanne hit the same areas in Georgia with the same intensity as Frances, and because producers in that state were further along in the production process, it is possible they may suffer additional losses.
In addition to the hurricane losses in those three states, other cotton-growing areas, including the Carolinas and Texas, experienced weather-related losses due to drought, hail and other bad weather this season and in 2003.
The Senate's recently-passed disaster legislation that was included in the Homeland Security Appropriations bill provides assistance for weather-related assistance for the 2003 and 2004 crops.
The NCC has urged that any disaster assistance provided by Congress would address this season's hurricane-related damage as well as other weather-related losses that occurred this year and in 2003.
"The National Cotton Council is committed to working with Congress to get the disaster relief to affected cotton producers," said NCC Chairman Woody Anderson, a Texas cotton producer.
Ricky Wiggins grows 3,000 acres of cotton and 600 acres of peanuts over a four-county area in southeast Alabama, southwest Georgia and the Florida panhandle. The area, he noted, has been adversely affected by hurricanes or storms in five of the past 10 years.
Wiggins, who said he expects to lose about 50 percent of the cotton on his Florida operation this season, will not know the entirety of his losses until the damage from Hurricane Jeanne can be assessed. However, his pre-Jeanne cotton yield loss estimates already are at a conservative 200 pounds per acre — $360,000 in lost revenue — and that does not include quality discounts on the cotton he does harvest or the value of lost cottonseed yield and quality.
"I've got cotton strung out and a lot is on the ground," Wiggins said. "The cotton that was not open when Ivan came through was laid on the ground."
As an example of the storms' devastation, Wiggins said 15,000-20,000 fewer bales will be processed at the Covington Gin in the southeast Alabama town of Andalusia. Accounting for both lost lint and seed turnout, he projects that will amount to well more than one million dollars out of the pockets of farmers who gin there.
Van Murphy, who raises cotton and manages gins in Quitman County, Georgia, near the Florida border, agreed.
"It's going to be devastating to our whole area, banks, car dealerships and other businesses," he said.
Murphy said that after the damage from Jeanne is calculated, losses in an area that encompasses Lowndes, Brooks, Echols, Lanier and Cook counties could be up to 50 percent or higher. He believes yield losses on the 60,000 acres in that five-county area could exceed $15 million.
On his farm, Murphy said he was looking at making two bales per acre, but "now I'm hoping for a bale an acre. It depends on how much cotton we are going to be able to pick from what's still hanging in the bolls. The plants are all entangled. When the picker separates those plants, a lot of the cotton will come loose and fall to the ground."
Along with the yield reduction, Murphy and the others believe they are looking at additional economic losses in the form of fiber quality discounts on any harvestable cotton.
C.B. "Chuck" Coley, a cotton producer and ginner in the south central Georgia community of Vienna, said Hurricane Jeanne put "a lot of our cotton on the ground."
He said although the southernmost Georgia counties took the brunt of Jeanne, his area around Dooley County is looking at yield losses ranging from 10 percent to 50 percent.
Jerry Davis, who has been raising cotton and other crops in south Alabama and the Florida Panhandle since 1984, said that before the storms county agents told him his fields would likely produce 1,000 pounds of cotton per acre. He said he now anticipates only harvesting 300-400 pounds per acre on what cotton is left in the fields and is facing a $600,000 loss.
When asked how important disaster assistance would be this season, Davis replied, "It's hard to get over this, knowing that it will take five good years to pay off the debts from one bad one. This is going to be devastating not only to the farmers around here but to the local economy."
NCC staff will continue to work closely with its members and Extension professionals to assess damages inflicted by Jeanne and the other storms.