The year for Georgia farmers: ‘Man, it was gut wrenching’

A tattered field of cotton in Newton, Ga. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Many of the people in Georgia who grow your food and other essentials had a brutal run of it in 2018.

Clay Pirkle, a cotton farmer from Ashburn, Ga., said it was the worst he’d ever seen. One of the state’s biggest vegetable farmers, Bill Brim of Tifton, said the same.

Gary Black, Georgia’s agriculture commissioner, described what befell the state’s biggest economic sector as ranging “from utter devastation to minimal success.”

Black said he continues to hear from farmers who tell him they won’t be able to make their financial obligations this year.

Their woes sprout from a litany of sources: Hurricane Michael's devastating winds, persistent rain that delayed and spoiled harvests, troubling freezes that tricked fruits, and plummeting prices for farmers, sparked by Chinese tariffs and a deluge of cheaper competition from Mexico.

From a busted blueberry crop in March to timber turned into kindling this fall and cotton — the state's biggest row crop — twisted by the hurricane, the year was tougher than usual. Black said he expects the combined annual value of Georgia harvests will be below recent averages of nearly $14 billion. 

Consumers, though, will see little or no affect at stores, he said, because the global food market has covered the gaps.

In Georgia, the hurricane alone caused more than $2.5 billion in losses, according to the University of Georgia’s revised estimates, which account for ruined harvests this year as well as longer term losses and equipment and property damage throughout the agriculture sector.

The ripple effects will hit the livelihoods of people in much of the state, where agriculture helps pay the bills for everyone from car dealers to lenders, restaurant workers, cotton gin operators and fertilizer salespeople.

“This is a nervous year,” Black, the agriculture chief, said of 2018. “Rural Georgia is nervous.”

Georgia farmers were expected to have a big year for peaches and blueberries this year, a big rebound from 2017. Instead, weather took another big bite out of harvests on many farms in the state. MATT KEMPNER / AJC (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

For some farmers, such as peach growers, the challenges fell on top of a crumbling base from 2017.

Explore“Last year, we got punched in the stomach. And when we were bent over, we got punched in the face,” state peach agent Jeff Cook said over the summer. “This year we just got punched in the stomach.”

The volume of the 2018 peach harvest for the Peach State was 50 percent below usual, Cook estimated more recently. Quality and prices were up, though the crop’s overall value was still off by 30 or 40 percent, he said.

In some agriculture sectors, though, this year was much worse and followed three years of troubles that have compounded financial risks.

Farmers typically take out loans each year to cover seed, fertilizer, equipment and other expenses for the coming season. Then they wait to see if the harvest will cover their bets.

In a cruel twist, it looked like some were on the verge of an extraordinarily good year. Then Michael hit.

“In about six hours it went from the best crop I had ever seen to a complete disaster,” said Pirkle, who had just begun harvesting his cotton fields in Ashburn, Ga.

“Man, it was gut wrenching.”

His production sank by nearly two thirds. Instead of the extra profit he had expected, he will lose money and his lender will have a bigger lien on the farm, Pirkle said.

“The first call I made was to my banker. I said, ‘There is no way I’m going be able to pay you what I owe you.’”

Pirkle, who is 50 and a state legislator, said he thinks his farm will survive, but for some growers “it will be impossible.”

Crop insurance and newly approved state aid won't cover all the costs, farmers said. They continued to wait to see if Congress will provide an extra layer of hurricane aid for farmers.

The hurricane particularly pounded south Georgia, decimating vegetable, cotton, income-producing timber and pecan farms, where its toll included eliminating trees that can take 15 years to reach full profit. Irrigation systems were destroyed, threatening the size of next year's crop output if the equipment isn't fixed soon enough.

ExploreRELATED: Georgia pecan farmers face more than one hurricane’s worth of pain

Winds felled or damaged 70 percent of the trees on a 125-acre southwest Georgia property owned by Gene Cook and his son-in-law Mark Spooner.

When they tried selling the wood, prices were one-tenth what they had been three years ago for upright trees, and it doesn’t look like crews are willing to complete the job. Cook said he’ll wait until the rains stop, then pile up the timber and burn it. Their loss on that damage alone: $200,000. Spooner predicts damage like that will hurt tax revenue for Seminole County, where he is a county commissioner.

Bill Brim holds zucchini in his fields near Tifton. Brim and other Georgia farmers are facing the loss of millions of dollars as migrant workers’ visas are delayed by the federal government. Photo by Andy Harrison/ Georgia Depatment of Agriculture (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Losses spread across much of south Georgia. Brim, the vegetable farmer, said he lost squash, cucumbers and peppers. His tomatoes were knocked down. His broccoli and collard greens, harassed not only by hurricane winds but also by subsequent weeks of rain, were stunted. Leaves have yellowed.

Collards, a good luck tradition for New Year's Day meals in the South, are in short supply for shoppers, Brim said. "You can't hardly find collards anywhere."

The storm eliminated harvests worth $30 million for him, he said. It also knocked out 15 of his greenhouses. With fewer good crops and less business, he sent 150 immigrant workers on visas back to Mexico.

Just as worrying to him, Brim said, have been lower prices this year — and perhaps in the future — for what many farmers do produce. Vegetables imports from Mexico have flooded the market this year, he said, dampening prices. He blamed U.S. trade negotiators whom he said this year agreed to eliminate anti-dumping tools for U.S. farmers.

RELATED: Collard greens shortage impacts Southern dinner tables

Pecan farmers have voiced similar complaints about Mexican trade. They also took a hit from tariffs China enacted in retaliation for tariffs President Trump set on certain Chinese goods.

Global competition also smacked Georgia blueberry farmers, who lost 80 percent of their crop due to poor weather conditions early in the year, according to the state’s agriculture commissioner.

Normally, diminished harvests would lead to higher prices, Black said, but those for blueberries tanked. He blamed inexpensive Mexican imports when Georgia blueberries were in season.

They and other growers have wrestled with other issues in recent years, including tiny white flies that harassed cotton and vegetable plants last year, uncertainty about visas for foreign migrant farm workers, and damage from the leftovers of Hurricane Irma in 2017.

Not all growers suffered this year, though.

Poultry, the biggest single chunk of agriculture in the state, had a fairly typical year.Meat producers in general did well, according to Kent Wolfe, who directs UGA’s Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development.

And north Georgia farmers generally had an average to better than average year, at least as far as the size of their harvests, according to Bernard Sims, a Ringgold, Ga., sod farmer and a vice president of the Georgia Farm Bureau. Sims also grows some corn, soybeans and strawberries.

Average might sound like nirvana for some. Said south Georgia pecan farmer Richard Grebel, who lost millions of dollars worth of crops, “I’m ready to put 2018 to bed and start 2019.”

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