Strands of cotton lay strewn across the ground like litter under a menacing overcast sky. Georgia Representative and local farmer Clay Pirkle stepped onto the field that was once a jewel among his land, while his brow furrowed and turned into a defeated sigh. “Everything was done, it was all ready to harvest, and then the hurricane harvested it for me,” Pirkle said.
Hurricane Michael, the strongest hurricane to hit the Continental United States since 1992, ran through the southeast part of the nation, ruining and destroying landscapes. When Michael arrived in Georgia, the category three winds tore apart barns, houses and investments such as farms, infrastructure and livelihoods.
Pirkle walked among the rows of crops, then stopped at an edge where crops lay torn, but they were also free of cotton. Gesturing to the right, Pirkle said, “these six rows, were picked after the hurricane, but look at all the cotton on the ground.” The mud under his feet covered with different shades of ruined and sprouting cotton.
As he stepped over to the next row, the rug of ruined cotton and dead leaves quickly faded away into a visually pleasing shade of soil. “Look at all the white here; I picked this before the hurricane and it’s clean as a whistle,” he said proudly. The hurricane left its mark, an unfinished field, for all to see.
“You can see where I got to and it was picking as clean as a whistle,” he repeated, “but this is as far as I could go. I still picked it off the stalk, but all my cotton’s on the ground. That’s 1100 pounds on the ground.”
In a majority of the agricultural industry, the price for a crop is not just dependent on weight, but in the condition of the crop as well. A sprout in cotton significantly reduces the grade of the cotton.
“The thing that hasn’t even been accounted for in the loss we’re going to experience in the yield is the quality of the plant, so not only will it be 1100 pounds lost, but you’re not going to get as much for the 400 pounds that’s left because you’re going to get deducted pretty heavy,” Pirkle explained.
Hurricane Michael will mark the third year of a struggle between farmers and the weather. The two years before, Hurricanes Hermine and Irma devastated agriculture in a similar fashion in 2016 and 2017 respectively.
“It’s just a gut punch, we had two bad years in a row and finally we have some good crop to pay off some debt but right at the last second, it was a gut punch,” said Pirkle as he loaded into his Chevy pickup and headed back to his main barn.
The grey landscape magnified the sorrow in his face by the second, as he turned his head left to survey his land while zipping by. Pirkle broke the bleak silence to say “it just hurts your feelings to ride by and see all that white on the ground,” a thought many in this area have while driving past the ruined fields of white.
“My wife keeps telling me ‘why do you farm every year, you keep saying maybe next year, maybe next year.’ Well, this was that next year, this was the one… my goodness,” Pirkle sighed as he came to a stop in front of a shed full of equipment.
The overcast sky still lingered above as Pirkle stepped out onto the clay ground. Above the shed was a sign that reads “Christianity is our business, we farm to pay expenses.” To the left, two barns sat with slices of their metal roofs harvested by Michael as well. “The infrastructure can be replaced, these barns, even though I didn’t have insurance on these,” he says as he chuckles, “that’s something I can put back together.”
All around Pirkle lay evidence of Michael’s wrath, yet the damage to infrastructure is the least of a farmer’s worries. “Those are all things we can put back together eventually. But if you’re losing 50 to 60 percent of your crop and your margin of error is 10 percent, some just aren’t going to make it. These three years have such a bad impact on Georgia’s number one industry, agriculture,” explained Pirkle.
With the negative impacts of this aftermath being pumped onto the media, in schools, and in everyday conversation, it’s very difficult to think of the positive.
“As my good friend Tom McCall, Chairman of the Ag Committee in the Georgia House, likes to say, there are only five things you really need: water, air, food, fiber and shelter, he says ‘the Good Lord looks after two of those and a good farmer takes care of the other three,” said Pirkle.
After another bleak look at the landscape, Pirkle continued: “Although the moment and the foreseeable future is difficult for someone that’s in farming now, for a young student I would want to stress that we’re always going to need food and cotton.”
Pirkle ended with, “This is something that is always rewarding personally, just not always financially.”