Hiers, who grows timber and pecans on 3,000 acres in Brooks County, estimates about 5,000 of his pecan trees, a quarter of the total on his farm, were knocked down by the storm.
“It rained six and a half inches and got the ground real wet,” Hiers said. “We had nuts all over the trees and it just started blowing them over like dominoes.”
On top of that, about 30% of his remaining pecan crop was blown out of the trees.
Credit: Special to the AJC
Credit: Special to the AJC
Lenny Wells, a professor and pecan specialist at the University of Georgia’s Tifton campus, said he’d heard similar reports of severe damage in counties along the Florida-Georgia border. The storm carved a northeasterly path across the state, so areas around Waycross, Blackshear and as far west as Irwin County, near Tifton, were also hammered, Wells said.
Wade Parker, a Southeast district area agronomy agent for UGA, said he’d also heard reports of cotton that was twisted by the powerful wind gusts in deep South Georgia, but was optimistic that most of it would survive.
“A lot of the cotton has not opened up yet, so it wasn’t quite as vulnerable to the harshest damage it could have sustained,” he said.
Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tyler Harper was in South Georgia on Thursday touring the damage and meeting with affected farmers, with more visits planned on Friday, his team said.
“Along with UGA Extension and our federal partners, we are working overtime to ensure our farmers, producers, and other GDA licensed operations impacted by Idalia have the resources they need to recover and bounce back stronger than before,” Harper said in a statement.
Farther north in Appling County, between Tifton and Savannah, Jonathan Mann, the co-owner of GBJ Mann Farms in Surrency, said the damage on his farm was less severe than he had feared before the storm.
Mann said some of his pecans were knocked out of the trees by the storm. And while the winds bent some of his cotton, he said he expects most of it to bounce back in time for harvest.
Wells and Parker cautioned that it would take days or weeks before the full extent crop losses is known, but both said early reports indicate pecans were the hardest hit.
Georgia produced $213 million worth of the nuts last year, making it the state’s third most valuable food crop, behind only peanuts and corn. Much of Georgia’s pecan production is centered around Albany, in southwest Georgia. But southeast Georgia is also a major growing region. Wells estimated that about 30% of the state’s pecan crop lies in counties that were affected by the storm.
On Thursday, Georgia’s two U.S. Senators, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, sent a letter to President Joe Biden asking him to approve any federal disaster assistance requests he receives from Gov. Brian Kemp “expeditiously.”
Kemp has also toured South Georgia and on Friday said he would seek a disaster declaration from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The apparent damage to Georgia’s pecans comes just as many growers were finally shaking off the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, a trade war with China and Hurricane Michael, a generational storm that wiped out entire orchards across a huge swath of South Georgia in 2018.
Michael knocked down about 1,100 trees on Vance Hiers’ farm. Pecan trees take six to seven years before they’re ready for production, and many of those he replanted in Michael’s wake were just entering maturity, only to be felled again by Idalia.
Hiers said he’ll spend the next several days clearing downed trees before he tries to save what little crop remains. In the meantime, he said he and his daughters — who are partners in the farm — will have to have some painful discussions about whether they’ll try to rebuild or cut their losses.
“You spend your whole life doing it, spending money for your kids and grandkids, and then you blink your eyes and it’s gone.”
A note of disclosure
This coverage is supported by a partnership with 1Earth Fund, the Kendeda Fund and Journalism Funding Partners. You can learn more and support our climate reporting by donating at ajc.com/donate/climate/