AL cotton crop losses trickle down beyond farmers

Hurricane Michael’s destruction of $100M in cotton will be felt far beyond the farm

AL cotton crop losses trickle down beyond farmers

HARTFORD, AL (WSFA) - To say the cotton farming community and the areas they call home took a financial hit from Hurricane Michael would be an understatement. Agriculture experts confirm after surveying the roughly 175,000 acres of cotton in southeast Alabama, they’re looking at roughly $100 million of lost crops.

That number, though both startling and devastating, still doesn’t fully show the impact of the crop’s loss.

“There’s all sorts of businesses that feed on these [agriculture] dollars," says Wiregrass Extension Specialist William Birdsong. "Once you have a vacuum of $100 million, it’s going to be felt.”

Likely the next to feel the impact of the cotton crop loss following farmers are the cotton ginners.

"The gin has a debt that has to be serviced and the only way it can service that debt is by ginning cotton, " said Birdsong, “All of a sudden there is no cotton to gin. There’s no more to gin to generate revenue.”

For Sowega Cotton Gin and Warehouse in Hartford, crop losses cut their business in half.

“We were expecting around 100,000 bales of cotton here. Now we’re expecting half of that, maybe 50...maybe 60,000, but the news keeps getting worse and worse as the pickers go across the field,” said manager Brad Smith.

Some $18 million worth of cotton crop won’t be processed through the plant and go back into the community. They plan to run the full ginning season from September until January, but since they are processing such a low quantity, they don’t need as many people.

The company has 15 full time employees and about 45 seasonal employees. Instead of running two 12 hour shifts for employee, they’ll only need enough manpower to run one, daily 12 hour shift.

"We bring them in locally and from other areas that specialize in what we do, " said Smith. “Approximately 25 people were on their way and stopped short. They were supposed to be here around Oct. 15. We told them not to come, so technically they were laid off.”

Cotton ginners don’t have insurance they can file on crop loss that disrupts their business, so lost revenue is just that. Lost revenue.

“We just have to hope for leniency from the banks and hope the federal government will help us out,” Smith said of their situation.

For cotton ginners, some of their bills will be cut in half because less cotton means less work ginning. Less ginning means less power needed. But that’s bad news for small towns that rely on ginners purchasing power to make money.

“We pay roughly $150,000 a month to the city. That will be cut in half to $75,000,” Smith went on. “Power, water, gas.”

That’s news city leaders in the small town of Hartford aren’t thrilled to hear.

“This area is primarily agriculture. It’s our biggest boom,” said Mayor Jeff Sorrells. “We were looking forward to the gin running three, four months this year and receiving the income from that.”

Sorrells says it’s still too soon to put a number on how hard his city will be hit.

“We know the loss is tremendous. As far as anything in the near future, we’re still trying to dig out and trying to get everything back up and running like it was before the storm hit. As far as putting any numbers or anything for that nature - or charting any course of action, we haven’t come to that point yet.”

It could also impact local businesses because less traffic into the area for work means less traffic at local gas stations and eateries.

Sorrells says despite the unfortunate economic outlook, the heart of the people in the city is priceless.

“It has really been a pleasure to see how people come together,” he explained.

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