Ryan Jenkins stood in an 80-acre field of cotton in Jay on Sunday afternoon, and pinched a sodden white boll between his fingers. What had once been rows and rows of waist-high cotton now looked like a giant had combed through the field, breaking the bushes’ stems at their bases, folding white cotton bolls into the mud.
The 46-year-old is part of a three-generation family that farms land they’ve owned since at least 1918. His father, Rennie Jenkins, is 72. His son, Chase, is 16.
Ryan Jenkins squished the sodden clump in his hand. The machinery he uses to harvest the cotton will not be able to gather most of the crop, which has been rotting in the continuous rain since Hurricane Sally drenched the area Tuesday night through all day Wednesday.
This was supposed to be the first year his family broke even in at least three years, he said. But Hurricane Sally’s slow crawl through Escambia and Santa Rosa counties left standing water in the fields that drowned his plants, stained the cotton with mud and disintegrated peanut crops.
Jenkins and at least 40 other farmers in the area are facing down losses from Sally that could range from roughly $1.2 million to $1.5 million.
Hurricanes are an obvious recurrence in Florida, but for the Sunshine State’s local farmers, federal subsidies, insurances and state and federal relief packages may be the only cushion they have between continuing their way of life and bankruptcy.
Yet many of the Panhandle farmers facing losses from Sally are still waiting on relief monies from Hurricane Michael in 2018.
Now two years later, a quick estimate after this most recent storm based on crop yields per acre and market prices shows those same 40 families could see losses starting at $32.5 million to $42.5 million for the 40,000 or so acres they own and maintain — growing cotton, peanuts, soybeans, corn and other staples for the region.
Florida’s Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried stood next to Jenkins in the field. On Sunday, the state agricultural commissioner was in northern Escambia and Santa Rosa counties to meet with more than 40 farmers to assess Hurricane Sally’s impact to the area.
“When all is said and done, it’s probably going to be almost 100% losses on most of the farms,” Fried told the Pensacola News Journal, adding: “It really puts us at a disadvantage of trying to rebuild the economics here in our country.”
Ruined plants, ruined plans
Like many in the area, Jenkins said his family was caught off-guard at Sally’s strength.
“Basically, we didn’t do anything to prepare,” he said of readying for the hurricane’s punch.
The Jenkins family moved machinery inside barns and tied down what they couldn’t move, as they do for any bad storm. But how do you prepare roughly 1,800 acres of plants for 110 mph winds?
“The weather from here on out will dictate what percentage of crops will be lost,” said Jerry Davis, a local farmer and state director for the Florida Farm Bureau. The 66-year-old was one of the farmers to meet with the state agricultural commissioner Sunday.
Davis owns land in Alabama and Florida and estimated he has already lost 20% of his crop this year. If the rain continues he, like the Jenkins family, said he easily could lose 80% or more.
If the cotton bolls had opened before the hurricane hit, they’re now ruined, he said. If the plants are folded over on the ground, they’re ruined.
If his peanut plants continue to soak in the nutrient-rich soil, their leaves turning yellow, the countdown has already started for when farmers can dig them out of the ground without them falling apart.
Though Davis joked that he introduces himself as a “hurricane target from Florida,” he said farmers in the area “live for the years we don’t have them.”
The path forward
Fried told the farmers gathered Sunday afternoon that the state would work to help them recovery from the storm.
“We’re going to be here for you for the long haul,” she told a gathered crowd of men and women in a metal barn in Jay. Rain clattered on the roof and someone slid the doors closed to better hear the state official.
About half of the people wore face masks in the outdoor barn, a reminder that COVID-19 also had knocked the agricultural industry back, though the businesses seemed to have figured out a path forward during the pandemic.
Fried told the gathered families the virus shuttering Florida’s tourism industry had pushed agriculture to the top of the state’s economy.
Fried emphasized that helping Florida’s farmers was something she considered a non-partisan issue. She is the only Democratic member of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Republican-majority Cabinet.
Donna Burkhead, who identified herself as a farmer’s wife, said she didn’t know what her family’s next steps would be in the aftermath of Sally, once the rains stopped.
“You wake up from a hurricane, you go out to look at your crops and it’s laying on the ground. There’s only one word — devastating,” she said.
Her husband is part of a multi-generation family of farmers like the Jenkins and the rest of the group on Sunday.
Like the Jenkins, Davis and other families who met with the state agricultural commissioner, the Burkheads may have invested in crop insurance or the additional hurricane insurance, but the details of the policy do not protect against damage caused by excessive rainfall, which is Hurricane Sally’s particular curse.
Many of the men in attendance offered ideas to add tropical storms, rain and other weather patterns to insurance policy protections to help farmers in the aftermath of Florida storms. Families also brought up how to help new farmers or younger generations of people who will take on their family’s land in the future.
The problem doesn’t have an immediate solution. First, the skies need to clear.
“You almost want to cry,” Burkhead said. “We all want miracles, but I don’t know how easy that will be.”