This is the second in a five-part series of Thanksgiving Week conversations with survivors of Hurricane Michael. The interviews, titled “Surviving Michael: A Thanksgiving Retrospective,” explore the faith that saw everyday individuals through the eye of a Category 3 storm. View Part 1 here.
JAKIN — On a good night in Seminole County, a stone’s throw from both the Florida and Alabama state lines, you can see forever. Or at least as far as the Milky Way Galaxy as it stretches from horizon to horizon, the light of its 400 billion stars twinkling from tens of millions of light years away.
There are times in life you wish you could see forever… or at least what’s around the corner. But on one starless night in October, residents experienced a storm far worse than any of them could see coming.
“We never knew what the predictions of ‘getting really bad’ meant because we had never had warnings of a storm like Hurricane Michael,” says Carlos Aguilar of Jakin. “Whenever a storm would come in from the Gulf, it would always break apart pretty quickly. But the 120 mile per hour winds that hit us were unlike anything we had ever experienced.”
The morning after the storm told the story in words few could describe. Everyone in this farming section of southwest Georgia was affected, from those who work the fields to those who sell its products in grocery or clothing stores. It wasn’t just produce like vegetables or pecans; it was also the historic backbone of the South: cotton, the fabric of our lives.
This is farm country, and the vast amount of the economy is based on what farmers scratch from the soil. They will tell you that gamblers go to Las Vegas to lose their money but farmers do it in their own backyard.
Farming, the locals say, is a walk of faith. It is an incredible sense of joy and satisfaction in a good year that can take you to the valley of defeat in a bad year. But it’s also a connection to the land that is not easily broken, and Americans who like to eat are the better for it.
Jackie and Bonnie Frith remember well the night of October 10.
The trees began to bend, straighten back up, then bend again. And then just went down.
“I’d open the front door every now and then to get an idea of what was happening and I’d see the trees beginning to bend, then straighten back up, then bend again,” says the owner of 50 acres of century-old pecan trees.
“Then they just went down.”
Frith, who grew up on a family farm and lives on a farm today, lost about 600 trees during that dark night. Trees that have produced tons of pecans through the decades as only mature trees can do.
“I have no idea what the loss will be until I add it all up,” he says. “But there are tremendous losses coming. Anyone who could not afford insurance will be left holding the bag.”
Companies will insure the pecan harvest but they do not insure the trees. If a farmer has a bad year he can get reimbursement – if he has paid for insurance – but there is no compensation for the loss of 90 percent of his trees.
Frith is somewhat fortunate in that he does not depend on the crop for his livelihood. Years ago he decided to seek a more stable profession and had a successful career in management at the local paper mill. He does have some cattle but no longer has row crops.
But he has a sizeable loss from the trees and, at his age, has to decide whether to replant hundreds of trees and wait at least a decade to get a first halfway decent harvest. At about 11 trees per acre, that’s a lot of trees to replant.
A friend has a 600-acre pecan plantation and every tree is laying on the ground “and there is not a thing he can do to harvest them.” And that is where the faith of farming comes into the discussion.
“Being a farmer requires a lot of faith because you never know whether or not you will have a harvest,” he says as he runs down the checklist of dangers.
“You could have too much rain or not enough rain. A strong rain at harvest can destroy your entire year’s work. Then there’s always a new insect coming along that has to be eradicated. Of course, we have no control over wild price fluctuations.”
What it boils down to, he concludes, is that you just do the work and hope you make enough to plant another year.
Explaining farming from a simple biblical perspective
Bonnie Frith, sitting in a chair under a shade tree on their farm, explains it all from a succinct biblical perspective.
“The farmer can plant and water the soil but God gives the increase. It takes tremendous faith, for sure. I know of farmers who planted their entire crops, only to discover they had gotten hold of some bad seed and did not have a single sprout. They had to go back and purchase everything again … seed and gasoline and oil for their equipment … and plant all over again.”
Heartbreak is no stranger to the farmer in such instances, but his faith helps him stand up and start again after he’s been beaten down by the elements.
“I can tell you this, the Lord will see you through, no matter what. You learn to try and try again,” she adds.
Later that morning, walking through the downed orchard, Jackie Frith talks about the trickle down effect that will impact communities like those scattered throughout Seminole and adjoining counties.
“Families everywhere will feel the brunt. If the farmer has lost all of his crop, the laborers have no work. If the cotton gins and peanut processing plants are too heavily damaged they lay off their employees until power is restored and silos are rebuilt. If there are no crops to process, truckers are not needed to haul the product to market or the next stage of production,” he explains.
And that means families are strapped for cash and their ability to tithe is affected, just as the Thanksgiving and Christmas season approaches.
“But I don’t worry too much about that,” he says. “Our church was heavily damaged but we have insurance. And I believe that a person who is really faithful will give whatever they can to the Lord’s work.”
Rain and wind is what brought heartache to Southwest Georgia. The wind brought down massive trees and the rain beat cotton to the ground. Driving throughout Seminole County bears witness to cotton fields stripped bare of their fluffy white bolls.
“Michael sure picked a lot of cotton in just a few minutes”
“Michael sure picked a lot of cotton in just a few minutes,” Jackie Frith says.
Driving through Seminole County bears witness to fields that are stripped bear of cotton, pecan trees on the ground in relation to which side of the eye of the hurricane took them down, and peanuts ready to be harvested but with no gas at the Birdsong Peanuts buying point in Colquit to dry them.
Keith Bowen and his wife, Jujuan, know very well the plight of farming. Keith Bowen, a deacon at Rocky Ridge Baptist Church outside of Donalsonville, spent the days after the storm trying to assess the damage.
The wind blew six rafters out of the back of the church, collapsing an exterior wall and piling bricks into the pastor’s study and two classrooms. A steeple affixed to the church with massive bolts was ripped from its moorings which allowed wind and rain to pour in through an eight-foot-square hole.
One of his cotton fields which surround the church did not fare much better. Cotton that had been waist high hours before the storm hit was now down to his knees. Some stalks were so badly blown around that he could not determine if the rows ran north to south or east to west to allow his picking equipment into the fields.
“I don’t know anyone who is going to harvest any cotton this year; it is really a terrible mess. The branches on the stalks are all twisted together and we are hoping they will straighten up; that would certainly make it easier to pick, if we can pick any at all.”
His peanuts were only slightly better but had their own unique problem. Being a plant that produces its crop underground meant there was no immediate damage. But what to do with the crop after it gets out of the ground comes with its own unique problems this year.
“It’s going to be a patchwork solution to get out of the field whatever we can. Without gas at the buying point to dry the peanuts our only solution is to field dry them and hope it doesn’t rain.”
Bowen has been farming all his life, working about 2,000 acres of peanuts between Colquitt and Donalsonville, as well as some cotton. His final observation is summed up in two sentences: “This storm damage is new territory to all of us. We are not sure how it’s going to turn out.”