By Carrie Hunter
Over six months after Hurricane Michael slammed into the Panhandle of Florida, the agriculture industry of Northwest Florida continues to struggle. Assessments by the University of Florida estimate the storm caused $1.5 billion in damage to the agriculture industry in Northwest Florida.
A cotton farmer, Bud Baggett, walks over to survey the remnants of two large buildings that once stood on his farm. Twisted metal lay in a heap that is almost twice as tall as he is. In the distance, a stand of pine trees that were meant to be his retirement fund, lay broken across the tops like twigs.
Bud and others in Marianna and the surrounding areas grow cotton, peanuts, and pine trees. All three of his crops were destroyed by the storm. The destruction of agriculture went as far north as Southern Georgia. Bud calls this God’s Country and notes that after the hurricane, churches were there for the people of Jackson County when they felt the government was ignoring them.
During Hurricane Michael, Bud lost his cotton crop—one that would have been one of the largest crops on record for his family. He also lost his peanut crop days before they planned to harvest. In a matter of hours, the storm also destroyed storage sheds and damaged the homes of his farm workers.
Insurance covered only part of the losses. Some of Bud’s fellow farmers couldn’t afford to “go again” and had to close up shop. Baggett and his wife decided to go to the state legislature to ask for help.
For months, the pleas of farmers in the region were ignored. Almost six months after the storm, the state finally approved a Bridge Loan program for farmers. It was capped at $200,000 for each farm and would allow farmers two years at zero percent interest. However, the loan would escalate to 12 percent after two years, which means any farmers unable to pay would end up in debt from which they would likely never recover. Bud Baggett didn’t want to sound ungrateful, but that this was too little too late.
A few miles north, in Greenwood, is a cotton gin that was badly damaged during the storm and was shut down for weeks. The damage had a domino effect on the industry affecting everyone down the line to the cotton gin workers and truck drivers, which in turn affects those worker’s ability to afford to rebuild their own homes. The cotton that was able to be harvested from Jackson County had to be shipped to Dothan, Alabama, to be ginned.
Bud Baggett is struggling to find enough workers, especially those with experience. The lack of housing in the region is making it hard for people to stay. But the peanut crop is starting to sprout, and Bud is hopeful that his farm can recover from Hurricane Michael.