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Cotton fields, other crops in Okaloosa take severe hit from Sally

Tony Judnich
Northwest Florida Daily News

BAKER — High winds combined with more than 20 inches of rain from Hurricane Sally delivered a severe beating to farms in north Okaloosa County, with this year’s cotton crop taking the hardest and most expensive hit.

“Most of our cotton is lying on the ground right now,” Jennifer Bearden, the University of Florida/Institute of Food & Agricultural Sciences Extension agriculture agent in Okaloosa County, said Wednesday. “We were about a month away from harvesting when the storm hit. We’re looking at about a 50% yield loss on our cotton.”

That equates to about a $1 million loss, a number that could grow even higher, she said. Following the storm, Bearden has been able to survey nearly 2,200 acres of the 2,500-3,000 total acres of cotton in the county.

More:Okaloosa and Walton counties keep eye on Sally the rainmaker

The cotton fields and other agricultural fields still are too wet to bring in farm equipment and make full assessments, she said. The massive rainfall washed away nutrients at various types of farms, and many peanut growers missed a fungicide spray because of the hurricane, according to Bearden.

There are about a dozen cotton growers in the county. Of those, the third-generation Marshall Farms in the Baker area is by far the largest, with 1,900 acres.

“Any of the cotton that was open, a good 50% is on the ground,” said Nick Marshall, who runs the farm with his father, James. “If not, it’s strung out on the burrs and hanging. With another rain or as soon as we run a picker through, a lot of that cotton will just fall off.”

Nick Marshall of Marshall Farms in Baker stands in one of his damaged cotton fields. Marshall's cotton crop was severely damaged by Hurricane Sally, and the farm might lose nearly 2,000 acres of crops.

He and Bearden noted with dismay that the remnants of Tropical Storm Beta soon could drop even more unneeded rain on the crops.

“The main thing we need right now is some sunshine like we’re getting today, and a drying-out wind from the north,” Marshall said. “We don’t need it to rain again until Thanksgiving.”

Cotton bolls are strewn on the ground at Marshall Farms in Baker. The farm's cotton crop was severely damaged by Hurricane Sally.

He said he soon plans to start digging Marshall Farms’ 850 acres of peanuts out of the ground to see what kind of storm damage they received.

Besides assessing most of the cotton crop in the county and helping farmers with insurance issues, Bearden has surveyed almost 1,000 acres of the local peanut crop. It could see an estimated 10-15% production loss, while area soybean growers could see a 10-20% loss, according to Bearden.

Nick Marshall of Marshall Farms in Baker holds a damaged cotton boll from one of his fields. Marshall's cotton crop was severely damaged by Hurricane Sally.

“The peanut harvest was supposed to start now and go through October, but it’s been pushed out to maybe next week, depending on how much rain Beta drops on us,” she said.

More:Peanut power: Little legumes are big business in Okaloosa

Bearden also noted that before Hurricane Sally charged in, an area strawberry grower had 8 acres bedded and plastic mulch laid to be ready for a mid-October planting.

The storm, however, ripped and blew away 15 rows of plastic mulch.

“He now has to re-lay 15,000 linear feet of plastic mulch,” Bearden said in a summary of her crop surveys. “He also lost about 70% of his 2 acres of greens for fresh local market.”

On another sour note, a farmer north of Baker is expecting a 90% loss on the 10 acres of tropical corn he planted for grain to feed his cattle, she said.