Downed trees, twisted cotton: Georgia farms hit hard by Idalia

Early reports indicate the state’s pecan crop sustained the most damage

While some farmers are breathing a sigh of relief after Hurricane Idalia’s pass through the state, others in deep South Georgia were left with fields of mangled cotton, hundreds of downed trees and the prospect of a years-long recovery.

Idalia made landfall Wednesday in the Big Bend region of Florida as a Category 3 storm packing 125 mile per hour winds. The storm had weakened some by the time its eye crossed the border into Georgia, but it was still a hurricane with sustained winds of 90 miles per hour, more than capable of inflicting severe damage.

Vance Hiers’ farm in Dixie, 15 minutes from the Florida state line and only 75 miles north of Keaton Beach, where the hurricane came ashore, was one of the unlucky ones in its path.

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.

The pecan orchards on Vance Hiers’ farm in Dixie, Ga., located 15 minutes from the Georgia-Florida line sustained heavy damage in Hurricane Idalia. VANCE HIERS / SPECIAL TO AJC

Credit: Special to the AJC

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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

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