Southwest Georgia farmers breathe cautious sigh of relief with reduced chance of heavy wind, rainfall

Sep. 28—LEARY — What a difference a couple of days make. For southwest Georgia farmers, whose memories of the devastation to their crops brought by Hurricane Michael a little less than four years ago remain strikingly vivid, Hurricane Ian initially looked like déjà vu all over again.

Michael barreled through the state on Oct. 10 and 11, 2018, causing estimated damage of more than $2 billion in losses to the state's agricultural industry. Direct losses to farmers and landowners included up to $600 million for cotton, $100 million for pecans, nearly $800 million for row crops, $480 million for timberland and $20 million for peanuts.

"A friend of mine in Louisiana called me yesterday, and he said 'I'm thinking about you,'" Calhoun County farmer Jimmy Webb said. "(For) every farmer, one hurricane in your life is enough."

By mid-week, and with the eastward turn of Ian, things were looking better for area farmers who began picking peanuts in earnest last week and are also looking to start gathering the 2022 cotton crop. The eastward shift of the storm's path drastically reduced the odds of heavy rain and severe winds.

"It looks like where I am is well on the west side," Webb said. "I feel better than I did two days ago. If you've got cotton defoliated and you're east of I-75, you could be in trouble. As long as you're on the west side of the eye, you usually fare better."

As of Tuesday, Webb said he had finished gathering about 40% of his peanut crop.

"We're going to finish picking today what we had plowed up," he said. "I figure I'm going to wait and see. We're going to take a break and hunker down and see what this thing does."

Area farmers and tropical weather have a relationship of sorts that could best be described as complicated. Some years the storms barge in during the peak of harvest season; in times of drought farmers may pray for a good drenching needed to help produce that year's crops.

Rain alone should not be an issue, the veteran farmer said of Ian's predicted impact.

"It's rain and wind," Webb said. "When it rains, that cotton gets heavy. The wind knocks it out of the burr, and you've had it."

Heavy rain also could cause some cotton to fall to the ground, bringing a loss in quality, but that's nothing like the worst-case scenario.

Webb's wait-and-see attitude is pretty much all farmers can do at this point.

"Ask me next week what the impacts are, because we're going to be doing assessments," Jeremy Kichler, an agricultural extension agent in Colquitt County, said. "We're going to keep an eye on this and assess any damage."

Wind gusts could cause some damage, but heavy, sustained winds would be much worse, Kichler said.

"I think we feel a lot better than we were when it was moving toward the west," he said of the storm.