The Future of Georgia's Pecan Farmers Remains Unclear Three Months After Hurricane Michael
It's been three months since Hurricane Michael bore down on southwest Georgia with triple-digit winds. For 75-year-old Robert Cohen, who has been harvesting pecans in the tiny town of Brinson since he was a child, a storm of that magnitude threatening his livelihood more than 100 miles away from the coast was unthinkable.
Speaking with Atlanta magazine, the lifelong farmer revealed he didn't even board up the windows of his two-story home, nor did he worry about his pecans just 10 days away from harvest. "Worrying couldn't change the weather," he thought to himself.
But then he watched the winds uproot the trees "as effortlessly as a gardener pulling carrots from the ground."
The next morning, he surveyed the damage with his wife and two sons—pecan farmers themselves. They observed rows of baby pecan trees, still too young to bear nuts, still standing. But his oldest trees, some planted by his father more than a century ago, were destroyed.
It takes nearly a decade for new pecan trees to fully mature, meaning that not only is this year's crop ruined, but so is the next one, and the one after that too.
Horticulturist and pecan expert Lenny Wells summed up Michael's devastation for Atlanta. According to Wells, 740,000 trees were destroyed, and 55 million pounds of nuts were ruined, totaling $560 million in anticipated economic losses. He estimates that about half of the state's crop was decimated, noting that Hurricane Irma had already wiped out a third of it the year before.
State agriculture commissioner Gary Black painted an even broader picture for the magazine. "We may have had the best pecan crop we ever had [in 2018]," he said. "You saw what could be. And now you see what's not there. Last year, Georgia sold $300 million worth of pecans. I'd be surprised if we sold $100 million this year."
And, as Wells stressed, not all losses can be quantified.
"Some of these guys are growing pecans on trees that their great-grandfathers planted," Wells told Atlanta. "Their grandfathers planted trees. Their parents planted trees. [The trees are] like children to pecan growers."
Pecan farmer Bo Morey outlined farmers' two options for going forward: bring in heavy machinery to clear the fallen trees, speeding up the process but also crushing fallen nuts, or hire workers to clear the debris by hand. The latter he described as a slow, expensive process that would leave pecans vulnerable to rotting. "Either which way," he told Atlanta, "we lose."
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All of this, coupled with increasing tariffs, has led many pecan farmers to consider leaving the industry altogether. The average age of a Georgia farmer is 60, and many feared it was a dying profession even before Hurricane Michael hit. For some younger farmers, pecans no longer seem like a safe investment.
"The storm has made us consider: ‘Is this something we want to do?'" David Goodson, who comes from a long line of Leesburg pecan farmers, told Atlanta. "What if this happens again? I don't want to think about it. But there's a chance."