Weathering Disaster

Extension agents help farmers, residents recover following destructive weather

Between tornadoes in January and Irma in September, Georgians saw widespread destruction, flattened homes and long-term power losses statewide in 2017.

These storms also destroyed thousands of pecan trees, a significant source of revenue for southern Georgia farmers.

University of Georgia Cooperative Extension pecan specialist Lenny Wells estimated that about 30 percent of this year’s pecan crop was lost to Hurricane Irma — downgraded to a tropical storm when it reached Georgia — as it moved through the state on Sept. 11. Winds knocked immature nuts to the ground, broke limbs and toppled trees, many of which were between 5 and 25 years old. Growers in Georgia’s Peach and Berrien counties lost thousands of trees, he said.

“A lot of the trees that were blown down were just coming into good production, which is a tough loss to take,” Wells said.

The tornadoes that swept through Albany, Georgia, in January marked the first time that James Morgan, 12-year UGA Extension Agriculture and Natural Resources (ANR) agent in Dougherty County, witnessed such devastation.“I have helped some of our farmers with assessments. A lot of their center irrigation pivots were destroyed as well as a lot of pecan acreage. I have helped collect data and worked with the local storm recovery team to put a value on how much of the farms were affected,” Morgan said.

More than 4,000 mature pecan trees, or 400 acres, were damaged in Dougherty County. Thirteen center pivots and numerous hay barns were also destroyed.

“For farmers with pecan trees, it is pretty overwhelming to say, ‘How am I going to replace these mature trees?’ They lost them during a time when they were not bearing. And now they’re going to have to wait six or seven years before production can start up again,” Morgan said. “It’s a big financial hurt to them.”

The same tornadoes that ripped through Dougherty County on Jan. 21 and 22 impacted Cook County, Georgia. At least 235 acres of pine trees, five center irrigation pivots and two ponds’ dams were destroyed, according to Tucker Price, Cook County Extension coordinator. He said Extension’s organized response system helped in the storm’s aftermath.

“Extension was a resource that people could count on for information, whether they needed debris removed or some land cleared or to know where to donate clothes,” Price said. “Partnering with Cook County government officials, we were able to get that information out in a timely manner at the local level.”

Several weather-related events have tested UGA Extension’s response system. A drought in fall 2016 hampered Georgia’s peanut crop. An unseasonably warm winter and late freeze in March hindered Georgia’s blueberry and peach crops.

“In times of natural disasters, county agents are relied upon for their expertise in crop management. Farmers may ask if they should abandon their crops, reduce inputs or continue to try for maximum yields. Correct answers from our agents can determine their financial outcome for the year,” said Tim Varnedore, Southwest District Extension director.

The mid-March freeze severely limited blueberry and peach production. Damage totaled near 100 percent on all rabbiteye and southern highbush blueberry varieties except for those that were saved using overhead frost protection, said Jeremy Taylor, former ANR agent in Lanier County, Georgia. Taylor, who currently serves as the ANR agent in Coffee County, Georgia, encouraged use of frost protection, identified the extent of freeze damage in commercial fields, communicated with crop insurance agencies and recommended applications to prevent the spread of diseases.

“Extension is the only resource growers can use for information that will help their business,” Taylor said. “We are here to make sure Georgia growers are equipped with the information to make good decisions on their farms that help them produce a good crop and stay sustainable.”
Weather conditions are unpredictable, but Laura Perry Johnson, associate dean for UGA Extension, believes that agents are essential resources during emergencies.

“Agents know the community and the people who live there. They know how to make connections and how to find the people who are needed to get things done,” Johnson said.

By Clint Thompson

Winds destroyed roofs and toppled trees during a January 2017 storm in Worth County, Georgia.

Weathering Disaster artwork