Hurricane Michael could wipe out 'once in a lifetime' Alabama cotton crop

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(AL.com) — The 2018 cotton crop in Alabama's Wiregrass region was expected to be a record setter, with farmers eagerly awaiting the combination of good prices and high yields to provide the kind of payoff that could get them on track financially for years to come.

Now all that is being thrown into doubt, with Hurricane Michael barreling toward the area as a category four storm expected to bring powerful winds and torrential rains to southeast Alabama over the next few days.

The cotton harvest season is just beginning, with leaves dropping off the plants and white bolls fluffing out from the stalks.

That's when the crop is most vulnerable, according to William Birdsong and Brandon Dillard, agronomists with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System and Auburn University working in the Wiregrass region.

"The timing of the storm really couldn't be much worse," Birdsong said.

Yields of cotton were expected to be high this year due to favorable weather conditions, including the lack of an August drought that had impacted farmers in previous years. Some farmers were counting on harvesting as much as 1,200-1,500 pounds of cotton per acre or more, compared to 800 or 1,000 pounds in previous years. That's likely not going to happen now.

"This was going to be, for southeast Alabama, one of the best crops that we had ever made as a region," Birdsong said. "I was hearing reports of some yields of 1,500, 1,800 pounds per acre before this storm, which is very unusual, record-setting yields by farmers."

Now those yields might be gone with the 65 mile-per-hour winds Michael is expected to bring with it.

According to the Extension records, Alabama farmers planted more than 435,000 acres of cotton in 2017, yielding crops worth an estimated $292 million. If the impacts to the Wiregrass cotton crop are as bad as feared, Birdsong said the economic loss to cotton farmers could be $100 million.

"Once the cotton hits the ground, it's basically not harvestable for our farmers," Dillard said. "Harvest was just starting on cotton, which means that they were just dropping the leaves off, so this cotton is a lot more vulnerable to the wind because there's no leaf protection.

"I really hope we don't see what we think we're going to see at the end of this."

Birdsong said Michael is shaping up to have similar impacts to the Wiregrass region as Hurricane Opal did in 1995, or Hurricane Eloise in 1975. Farmers still remember those storms due to the heavy losses, and they fear this might be a similar event.

"A farmer never wants to work all year and toil for something to lose it in the end to something unexpected, such as a storm," Birdsong said. "But to lose an exceptional crop, maybe even a once in a lifetime or once in a 20-year period type crop, then that's even more disheartening."

Cotton prices were down some this year, but more or less holding steady, partly thanks to a 6-cent per pound bonus from the U.S. government to offset losses stemming from the Trump Administration's trade disputes with China.

The area has already begun experiencing heavy rains and strong winds as bands of the storm roll through the area, and many farmers in the Wiregrass area have been working around the clock over the last few days to get as many fields harvested.

That window has closed now though, with weather conditions making the harvest impossible Wednesday.

More on this story at AL.com.
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