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Unyielding resilience: Farmers facing adversity and rebuilding after Hurricane Idalia

After Hurricane Idalia swept through North Florida, some farmers faced tough decisions about whether to continue their profession or “sell out and leave.”

Summer crops have been harvested, and the hurricane season is almost over – but Florida farmers now face off-season decisions about how much more adversity they are willing to tolerate.

Farmers, who already have one of the most challenging occupations, are still reeling from record-breaking summer heat and the winds and heavy rains from Hurricane Idalia.

“We’ve had them close, had some winds, nothing like this,” said Timothy Driver, a 54-year-old Day farmer. “I think everybody’s still in shock, and people want to give up, but you know you can’t do it. You just got to keep going and fight for life.”

Driver grew up picking and growing watermelons in the field with his dad. After graduating high school in 1987, he turned his after-school activity into a business.

Man opens a tobacco bulk barn
Caitlyn Schiffer
Timothy Driver opening one of his tobacco bulk barns. One of the few that survived the storm.

For more than 30 years, he has cared for his 400-acre farm in north central Florida. But after Hurricane Idalia swept through the area on Aug. 23, some farmers like Driver face tough decisions about whether to continue their beloved profession or “sell out and leave.”

Driver lost three of his barns, his shop and two of his cattle. He estimates the cost of damages at about $150,000, not including the costs of removing half of his trees damaged by the wind.

Hurricanes are not new to Florida, where an average season consists of six storms.

While making precise predictions about the predictability and accuracy of future hurricanes can be challenging, John Nielson Gammon, 61, regents professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University, suggests the forecast for these storms indicates an increased likelihood of higher intensity.

“The long-term projection is for increased intensity,” Gammon said. “But individual storms that reach cap four and five status are fairly rare, a handful a year in the Atlantic Basin, so it won’t be possible to detect any climate-driven uptick over just a few years, but the odds of such storms occurring are expected to increase.”

As Florida faces higher temperatures, otherwise known as heat waves, the rising mercury has multiple impacts on agriculture.

“It decreases the productivity, and it decreases the yield in certain crops,” said Dr. David Keellings, assistant professor in the UF Geography Department.

Building damage
Caitlyn Schiffer
The remains of Rod Land's dairy farm. “Some things won’t ever be the same.” Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023, in Mayo, Fla.

Storms are dropping more rainfall because they are moving slower and that creates more problems.

“They are going to spend longer over one particular area, they’re going to drop more rainfall and the flooding risk increases,” Keellings said.

Keellings said there are some periods when there is less precipitation and that creates a shortage of water for crops. But, there are days with extremely heavy precipitation, creating issues with runoff, causing soil erosion and flooding and washing out crops.

Jeff George, chief meteorologist at UF, said this most recent summer there were record-breaking warm temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico.

The extreme water and air temperatures contribute to the increased intensity of storms.

“The maximum intensity of hurricanes depends upon the difference between the temperature of the sea surface and temperature high up in the atmosphere, and with climate change and surface temperature warming, that difference increases,” Gammon said.

With uncertain climate conditions expected ahead, experts have a few suggestions for farmers like Driver.

“Farmers can adjust their planting times and use cultivars that are more resistant to heat and drought,” Gammon said.

Dr. Corene Matyas, a geology professor at UF, advises farmers to plant more trees, as they provide a windbreak in a storm.

“The planting of trees or ground covers could be potentially important,” Matyas said.

Immediately after Idalia, organizations such as the Florida Farmer Bureau Federation helped farmers with supply drives where anyone could donate supplies, such as fencing and generators. In addition to the supply drive, the bureau established a Disaster Relief Response Committee led by volunteers.

A Hurricane Idalia Relief Fund was also established. The fund collects monetary donations, and producers can apply for those funds. When someone donates, they can receive a tax-deductible donation to the fund, which can be found on its website.

Rod Land, president of Lafayette County Farm Bureau, owns a dairy farm in Mayo that was significantly damaged by Idalia. With the silage tower and the roofing of his dairy farm crumbled, Land acknowledged the difficulties ahead. But, he remains optimistic as his community bands together.

“I’ve had people as far as Highland County wanting to know if they could do anything,” Land said. “It’s just another one of those curves in life you get through.”

Damage to a shed
Caitlyn Schiffer
Another destroyed shed from Hurricane Idalia. The entire roofing had been blown away by the monstrous winds. On Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023, in Day, Fla.

Courtney Darling, communications manager of the farm bureau, has been working with individual farmers in hopes of making repairs at a faster pace.

“Their livelihoods have been impacted,” Darling said. “I keep hearing over and over again that Florida got lucky, and it’s good that it didn’t hit a more populated area. People were complaining about their electricity being gone for a day, but these farmers have lost basically their complete livelihoods.”

According to Darling, about 112 pivots, mechanized irrigation systems, were knocked out and 50 million chickens were affected, as they fell ill or died directly from the hurricane.

Relief efforts are important, but Darling said the farmers bring their own contribution to the recovery effort.

“These are very resilient people, and they will continue to move and grow forward through this, and it’s not a pride issue like they are embarrassed to ask for help; they just help themselves,” Darling said.

Jeb Smith, president of the farm bureau, comes from a long line of farmers. He said another strategy the bureau is utilizing is social media.

“People can see the needs now a lot more readily than they have been in the past,” Smith said.

Jaley Moseley, 17, and Brent Sullivan, 19, were up until 2 a.m. the night before the storm at the White Oak Dairy in Mayo, Fla.

Man with his foot on the back of a truck
Azhalia Pottinger
Jaley Moseley and Brent Sullivan standing strong as a face of resilience. “We’re blessed with good people.”

As the wind speed hit 148 mph, Moseley and Sullivan watched in disbelief as Idalia tore through their community. Homes destroyed, barns demolished and tree debris everywhere. The land they had grown up on for their entire lives was now forever changed.

Moseley and Sullivan estimate they sustained about $400,000 in damages from the storm.

“You’re just watching trees fall and you’re like, I don’t know if there’s gonna be any cows left in that field,” Moseley said.

The 2,000-acre rural community Moseley and Sullivan live on is comprised of families that work on the dairy whose houses had been torn apart with anything ranging from a tree knocked onto a roof to a house blown away.

“Until power came back on, it was kind of just like damage control, keep everybody alive,” Moseley said.

Vulnerable cows also suffered. Cows suffered heat strokes because emergency generators could not support fans. The stress caused the cows to produce less milk.

Cows lined up in a barn
Azhalia Pottinger
A photo of just a few of the thousands of cows impacted by the storm. “I just thought, there’s no way those cows are still alive,” Jaley Moseley said.

“Cows don’t produce milk when they’re not comfortable,” Moseley said.

Moseley and Driver have accepted that in the future farmers will operate in an increasingly unpredictable environment. But still, they appear ready to forge ahead, drawing on the optimism that for decades has gotten American farmers through droughts, winter freezes, floods – and even hurricanes.

“You really saw the agriculture community and within our own community rally together,” Moseley said. “They support each other because without each other we can’t support ourselves.”

Driver added: “The hurricane is not going to run me off.”

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