Bainbridge, Ga. - Eric and Rob Cohen glanced around their massive pecan tree farm here Tuesday, calculating their losses from Hurricane Michael and thanking God their families had survived the deadly storm. All around the brothers, their pecan trees lay bent over, split open, shattered. It looked like a bomb had exploded. In all, they lost 800 acres — more than one square mile — of crops.
The storm, they said, was terrifying – “unbelievable” — as it barreled through Southwest Georgia last week, turning parts of the state into a “war zone” and destroying pecan groves their father has owned for half a century.
“My brother and I, we built this business from nothing. We will make it,” Eric said. “I may not be in the pecan business, but I will be doing something else. We are fighters. That is the way you are — you just have to go on.”
The Cohens’ losses are among more than $1 billion in damages sustained by Georgia’s agricultural industry, the state’s largest. Pecan, cotton, fruit and vegetable farmers are all struggling in the storm’s wake.
Asked what else they needed, Rob and Eric offered a simple one-word answer: Prayers.
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The brothers shared their harrowing story during a visit from Vice President Mike Pence, who flew to Southwest Georgia so he could survey its storm damage and speak to farmers at the Sunbelt Agricultural Exposition in Moultrie.
“I am really here just to assure all of you that we are going to stay with you through all of this,” Pence told the Cohens as Gov. Nathan Deal, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and other state and federal officials stood by his side. “This represents generational loss — to see these four-year-old pecan trees down right about the time that they were getting close to producing.”
“I just want to assure you that we get it,” he added. “We need to do more. Hurricane Michael was a generational storm. We are going to address it that way, working with the leaders in Congress and in the city and on the farm. We are going to bring this region all the way back.”
Pence and his wife, Karen, traveled to Southwest Georgia the day after President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania visited a Red Cross center in Macon and spoke with farmers in central Georgia about their losses. Trump has issued a disaster declaration for the Peach State Sunday and ordered federal aid for parts of Georgia affected by the storm.
At the agricultural expo in Moultrie, a string of state government officials highlighted rural problems they fear are getting ignored by much of the rest of the state. Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr said his office is enforcing policies to block price gouging and prosecute scammers who prey on struggling farmers.
“Make sure you know who you’re dealing with,” he told the farmers as they fanned themselves in a sweltering building. “Don’t let one disaster become another.”
Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black somberly recited the latest damage estimates from the hurricane: about $600 million to the pecan crop and $480 million to the fruit and vegetable industry.
“There’s much more to come,” said Black, who added the fallout for the poultry business is still being tabulated. “We’re trying to make sure the rest of the food supply is safe for everyone else.”
The state and federal government, he said, needs to explore “unprecedented” proposals, such as new ways to restructure agricultural debt, and he urged farmers to help devise the response.
“The answers do not lie in Washington or whoever is holding the microphone. The answers lie in our people,” he said. “We have to think thoughts that we’ve not yet thought because we are in a situation we’ve never been in before.”
After speaking at the expo, Pence visited Flint River Mills, a major animal feed supplier in Bainbridge that was heavily damaged by the hurricane. John Powell, the company’s president, gestured to a pile of twisted metal that was once a silo. When it split open, 200 tons of grain sorghum spilled out into a pile.
“It appears that it (the storm) just basically picked it up and laid it over on its side,” he said as Pence spoke to his workers. “It’s devastating. We have lost about five grain elevators.”
Powell had not yet quantified the damage to his business, which has operated since 1927. Asked how long it will take to get back to normal, he turned to his plant manager, who said it could take months. The company employs about 85 workers.
“It’s hard to say everything we need and everything that we are going to require to get back up,” he said. “We just want to get the plant back in operation so these families can get back to work.”
-Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this report.