Eighteen months after Hurricane Michael, SW Ga. farmers to get relief

By: - May 1, 2020 3:19 am

Damaged trees are still part of the landscape around southwest Georgia about a year and a half after Hurricane Michael stormed through. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

Rob Cohen lost more than 15,000 pecan trees when Hurricane Michael ravaged his south Georgia farm in October 2018.

The Bainbridge farmer predicts it will take a decade before his farm recovers from the storm that affected 60% of his pecan operation. Cohen is now awaiting word from the Georgia Department of Agriculture about whether he will receive a share of a $347 million federal grant for Hurricane Michael relief more than two months after the state agency announced money was on the way.

The Cohen farm did not produce any pecans last year, and with this year’s insurance money only covering electricity bills, he can really use the relief money now, he said.

“We planted trees this year, but we didn’t get all the 600 acres planted back,” Cohen said. “We probably planted back 300 acres of trees, so hopefully, this (grant) will allow us to pay for those trees and give us the operating money to carry on another year or two years.”

The grant application window closed Thursday, and Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black says he expects his department will distribute money to farmers from May through June.

About 2,400 Georgia farmers likely applied for federal assistance by the end of yesterday’s midnight deadline, Black estimates. The block grant covers damages and potentially lost income for beef, dairy, poultry, pecans, fruits, vegetables and timber farms.

The program is intended for farmers who missed out on an earlier round of aid last fall.

Hurricane Michael made landfall at the Florida Panhandle region as an unprecedented Category 5 storm. It proceeded to ravage southwest Georgia where it caused an estimated $2.5 billion in losses to the state’s agricultural industry. It’s been a slow process for Georgia to get federal disaster aid and this spring the farmers are also coping with a collapse in demand for their products caused by the COVID-19 outbreak.

A silver lining is this $347 million will benefit rural Georgia, Black said.

“I regret it taking so long,” he said. “Our team has worked tirelessly since last June. Unfortunately, the journey has taken much longer.

“There’s great satisfaction when you get through a completed task,” Black added. “The delays contributed to far more angst in the farming community and banking community than, in my opinion, should ever have happened. We just have to work expeditiously to get our end of the job completed.”

Over the last couple of years, Georgia farmers dealt with not only Hurricane Michael, but other natural disasters and storms, an extended dry spell and low market prices, said vegetable farmer and state Rep. Sam Watson, a Moultrie Republican.

“That’s (2,000-plus) farmers in Georgia that have been struggling for two years and have been patiently waiting for that money,” Watson said. “We hope it’s not too late for some of them, but we’re very excited about it. It gives all of us some hope and encouragement, which we need right now.”

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Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap

Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo.