Storms affect farmers the most - WALB.com, Albany News, Weather, Sports

Storms affect farmers the most

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September 27, 2004

Omega-- We watched and worried about Hurricane Ivan, and when it turned westward, most people breathed a sigh of relief. But a group of Southwest Georgians remained concern because they have a huge financial stake in what the hurricane does.

 To better understand this farmer's story, you need to know he saw fuel prices to operate his equipment double, and the market price for one of his three crops cut in half.

The story begins on Friday, September 10.

Sometimes when people would like history to repeat itself, it doesn't. "Last year, we had one of the best cotton crops we've had in several years," said a worried Russ Ponder.

Ponder's cotton looked as good as last year's until an un-welcomed visitor came out of the blue. "Francis kind of left us in a pretty good mess," he said. An expensive mess. "We lost anywhere from 30 and 40% of our cotton crop." Now, Hurricane Ivan worries him, even though it's a thousand miles from Omega. Meteorologists predict Ivan would drop more rain on his already water-soaked fields, making matters much worse. "What's going on is panic."

While people in Albany were in a panic to find generators, Russ' decided to gamble. He had to so something even though the cotton wasn't ready for harvest. "You are either all right or all wrong." Ivan's winds could literally blow the cotton to the ground, making it impossible to harvest. While he waited, Hurricane Ivan batters Jamaica, 950 miles away, and while he prayed for the sun to break through the clouds, local organizers of the Pepper festival didn't wait.

They held their community parade, even though almost everyone in Omega worried about Ivan. "The banker doesn't just have 300 acres of cotton. They've got several thousand acres of cotton," said Local Banker David Keith. He has about $10 million in farm loans at stake. "It's a major concern."

The sun came back. Russ got a break. The clouds parted, blue sky and a light wind came "Pray. That's about the only thing you can do now is pray," said Rev. Benny Daniels. And, they did at a community church service held as part of their festival on Sunday. "You said pray to me and I'll give them to you. Ask and you shall receive. Would you take that storm.and stop it out there in the Gulf and let it spin down just like a top.and then it settles down right there," said Daniels.

While Rev. Daniels prayed, Ivan continued to terrorize the Caribbean islands. If the hurricane hit Russ' cotton fields, as the weather service predicted, his livelihood may not survive. There was another crop at risk. His peanuts were vulnerable to disease.

So, Russ decided to spray his peanuts in hopes of preventing another loss. His peanut field was already wet, the right conditions for a serious disease problem, and more loss. "It's a high stakes guessing game. If I had my ruthers, I'd rather go to Vegas and roll the dice. That's about what it's like." In Albany, crews cleared storm drains in anticipation of Ivan's heavy rain. They worked Sunday to clear those drains, and Russ worked Sunday, too.

He felt desperate to salvage what cotton he could, when his luck ran out. While picking cotton, his harvesting equipment bogged down, paralyzed by the wet earth. "You're looking at a $300,000 sitting in a mud hole right now." A machine he needed now more than ever. "Hopefully, we can get it out without tearing anything up."

Could two tractors hooked together pull the cotton picker free? Yes. Finally, Russ had something to smile about. "Feel a lot better. Within 30-minutes of getting his machinery out of the bog, he was back harvesting cotton even though it was raining. It was if Russ felt desperate. His salvage operation continued with more urgency. He had problems sleeping. "I was up two or three times during the night last night trying to catch the updates on Ivan."

Tuesday, Russ woke up to overcast skies Tuesday morning that reminded him that Ivan had moved closer during the night, while shifting its path to a more westerly direction. "Not wishing bad luck on anyone else, but we can't stand it." The crops couldn't stand more wind and rain either. The cotton bolls barely hung on as it was.

At Cil's Country Mart and Restaurant, where Russ often eats lunch, Hurricane Ivan remained the hot topic of conversation. He knew meteorologists predicted the hurricane would make landfall further west, maybe as far west as Mobile, about 280 miles away.

People along the Gulf Coast boarded up their homes and businesses and hoped for the best. Was Russ' stress level lower with the news the storm's projected track was more westerly? "Stress level is the same." In the classic glass half-full or half-empty example, Russ' glass approached empty of optimism. "Tired of watching it. My wife got on to me for watching it so much, last night."

Wednesday, September 15 was more overcast weather and wind came on Wednesday, and rain, but they didn't last long.

Thursday, September 16 started deceptively, Ivan made landfall near Pensacola, but an eerie calm before the storm could be felt in his cotton field. The gray storm clouds moved faster and turned darker. The wind got stronger and stronger as the cotton bowed to gusts of about 48 miles per hour.

Did Ivan have a parting shot? What meteorologists call a feeder band of rain hit Thursday night, knocking more cotton to the ground.

Russ estimates the hurricanes cost him at least $175,000 in lost production. The losses, bad as they were, could have been much worse. "Right now I think we faired good enough to pay the majority of our bills. It's going to take several years to overcome the losses." He had crop insurance. "It won't cover all of it."

Eight days of worry and feelings of desperation finally came to an end, a better end than Russ Ponder expected. Now, he could hope again, a vital ingredient for any farmer, something Russ Ponder came close to having blown away.

Russ remains disappointed like many farmers. He hopes the government will provide some kind of financial relief, something many farmers want and need, but that looks questionable, and it frustrates them.

What about Hurricane Jeanne? Same worry, third verse. The sleepless nights, the fields too wet to work, and more losses from another storm. It seems when bad luck happens to farmers, it pours.

He has a lot of peanuts ready for harvest, one of three crops that might produce as well as he first hoped for. That now that hope is in jeopardy.

posted at 6:15PM by dave.miller@walb.com