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With Hurricane Michael, Southern Farmers Face a 'New Normal'

Extreme climate events wreak havoc on agriculture, and farmers are trying to adjust—but entrenched industry and government practices may be holding them back.
Toppled trees are seen after Hurricane Michael passed through the area on October 11th, 2018, in Mexico Beach, Florida.

Toppled trees are seen after Hurricane Michael passed through the area on October 11th, 2018, in Mexico Beach, Florida.

At this time in the harvest, Georgia's cotton is vulnerable. The plants' leaves drop away, exposing delicate white bolls. So when Hurricane Michael ripped through the Southeastern United States, pouring rain onto fields and whipping crops from the soil, farmers emerged to see their whole livelihood stripped away. One grower told Bob Kemerait, plant pathologist at the University of Georgia, that his fields were "picked cleaner now than if he had gone through with a cotton picker." He's looking at a 100 percent loss.

Across Georgia, Alabama, and the Carolinas, Michael devastated agriculture: pecans, cotton, sweet corn, and soybeans. Only peanuts, safe underground, may have escaped unscathed. All this could total an "economic loss in the millions," Alabama's Dothan Eagle reports, adding to the extensive damage from a powerful storm surge and 155 mile per hour winds, which caused at least six deaths.

"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," William Birdsong, an agronomist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System and Auburn University, told local news site "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."

Michael was the first Category 4 storm to ever make landfall in the Florida Panhandle. A "once-in-a-lifetime crop" can't stand up to a once-in-a-lifetime storm. But these intense storms are coming ever more frequently; studies show climate change results in stronger hurricanes. The climate is changing, and agricultural will have to change with it—or suffer the losses.

The New Normal?

Kemerait, a University of Georgia Extension specialist who's been working with agents assessing damage in the field, says the region's crops were left exposed because much had not been harvested, and farmers did not expect the sudden intensity of the storm. "It was like a bowling ball going through and hitting a strike in the most important production areas in our state," he says.

About a quarter of the country's soybean crop had been harvested by last week, but only 5 percent of South Carolina's crop had been harvested; as much as 90 percent of cotton was still unpicked in Alabama, Georgia, and the Carolinas, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Barreling through these "heavily cropped southeastern lands," Michael caused "consequential damage," Agriculture Department meteorologist Brad Rippey said in a USDA broadcast. Now, the downgraded storm is heading toward a region already hit hard by Hurricane Florence.

"There is an awareness, or a feeling—an unsettled feeling—that this is the largest storm on record to hit the Panhandle, maybe the second or third largest ever documented in the U.S.," in addition to other storms that have hit the Panhandle over the past three years, Kemerait says. "Is this the new normal? Are we going to be fighting storms like this during harvest on a more regular basis? And if so, what are we going to do about that?"

As the recovery begins, farmers working with Georgia's extension will consider stronger measures to make their farms more resilient to extreme climate events, including introducing hardier crop varieties (which Kemerait says could be done easily), adjusting planting dates so harvest does not coincide with hurricane season, and shifting acres to crops that aren't as vulnerable to wind and rain, such as peanuts.

That last part will not be easy. Farmers often invest more than $500,000 in equipment for just one crop. They don't have the funds to switch over. Some growers have already told agents that they don't know how they'll ever recover from Michael—"the final nail" for small or struggling farmers, Kemerait says.

"Kind of A Paradox"

Monoculture can be hard on farmers for other reasons. Research shows that small farmers, who own diversified farms, are actually better prepared to cope with the consequences of climate change, including hurricanes. Miguel Alteri, agronomist at University of California–Berkeley, says diversifying crops, planting hedgerows and windbreaks, adding trees into fields, or restoring wetlands can help agriculture adapt to a growing threat. (Although, he adds: "Obviously there's a limit. With a hurricane like what happened with Michael, I don't think that would have helped much.")

Alteri and his colleagues found that small farmers in Central America suffer less damage from hurricanes than neighboring monoculture operations, since they're more likely to adopt these measures. The American Southeast suffers from a similar problem. "These monocultures of cotton don't have any defenses against these climatic events," Alteri says. "But that requires a major structural change, which farmers are not going to do if there's no incentive; they're locked into monoculture because of government subsidies."

On top of this, development in the Florida wetlands left agricultural fields open and exposed during Michael. Recent studies have shown that coastal wetlands are highly effective at mitigating damage from hurricanes, and yet construction has destroyed much of the state's mangroves and coastline.

The USDA has promised emergency aid to farmers. However, long-term conservation strategies, such as those Alteri endorses, have recently come under fire: Due to the farm bill lapse, sign-ups have stalled for programs that protect wetlands and help farmers diversify crop rotations. Moreover, in the ongoing fight over the 2018 farm bill, the House of Representatives is pushing to cut funding for what the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition calls "our nation's only comprehensive working lands conservation program."

These programs are one way to protect farmers from hurricanes; switching crops might be another. But none of this gets to the root of the problem, sustainable agriculture advocates warn. "The way we are farming is very vulnerable to climate change," Alteri says. "With industrial systems, what people don't understand is that industrial agriculture ... emits much of the CO2. It's kind of a paradox: On one hand we have a very vulnerable agriculture, that actually provides the gases that destroy the agriculture."