Hurricane Michael damage: up to $3 billion in Georgia agricultural losses

“Unfortunately, our worst thoughts were realized,” Ag Commissioner Gary Black says

Damage from Hurricane Michael to Georgia’s agriculture industry could reach nearly $3 billion, according to new state assessments.

“These are generational losses that are unprecedented and it will take unprecedented ideas and actions to help our farm families and rural communities recover,” Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black said in a statement.

Timber losses alone are estimated at $1 billion, as about 1 million acres were destroyed, state figures show. Cotton, peanuts, pecans, vegetables and poultry also were hit hard.

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“Unfortunately, our worst thoughts were realized,” Black said. “We saw months and sometimes years of work just laid over on the ground in a matter of seconds. Georgia has long led in the production of several renowned commodities and now we have the dubious distinction of also leading in the devastation and incredible loss of these prominent crops.”

The issue is poised to become political amid the state’s tight and heated governor’s race. Republican candidate Brian Kemp, who was greeted with “Farmers For Kemp” signs on his tour of south and middle Georgia earlier this month, was heartily endorsed by Vice President Mike Pence during a tour of damaged areas this week. His campaign blasted Democrat candidate Stacey Abrams’ comment that “people shouldn’t have to go into agriculture or hospitality in Georgia to make a living in Georgia” during a campaign stop in Statesboro this week.

Abrams says knocks from the Kemp camp are evidence of her appeal throughout Georgia. "I believe the appropriate hip-hop term is, 'They are shook,'" she told the cheering Statesboro crowd. "Because that's why they're saying crazy stuff all the time."

None of the farmers The Atlanta Journal-Constitution spoke to on Wednesday brought up politics at all. They’re too busy surveying damage and figuring out how to press on.

“This will probably put us out of business,” said Bainbridge farmer Eric Cohen. “Farming is the heartbeat of south Georgia. It’s not just us. It’s the guys selling guns, it’s the clothing stores, the jewelry stores. The timber industry, look what it’s going to do to it.”

Cohen has been farming for 18 years. He recalls the mess from Hurricane Kate, which hit the Florida Panhandle at Category 2 strength in 1985. He was 7 at the time and pitched in during the cleanup efforts in his father’s pecan orchards.

“It was the storm we always feared. I remember it vividly,” he said. “This one was 10 times worse.”

Greg Calhoun hasn’t been able to get to all of the acreage he farms in Miller, Decatur, Seminole, Baker and Early counties, but he knows it’s bad.

“This is not going to be a short-term fix. This is going to take years,” he said. His family has been farming for as long as he can remember. He cannot recall a storm so devastating.

“The only thing I’ve seen that would compare to this is maybe Puerto Rico, on TV,” he said, referring to Hurricane Maria. “Everything’s mangled up.”