PENSACOLA, Fla. — Rodney Helton stood in a cotton field in Atmore, Ala., just over the Florida state line, with puddles of wet, mushy soil and water gathering over his dirty boots.
He reached out and plucked a sopping wet cotton boll off of a brown, rotting stem and held it between his fingers, shaking his head.
“See this?” he said, peeling the wet cotton apart like an orange. “That’s not how it’s supposed to be. It’s supposed to be fluffy, it’s cotton. That’s no good. No good.”
Like almost all farmers in the northern ends of Escambia and Santa Rosa counties, 2018 was one for the record books, and not in a good way. The Pensacola area saw just more than 90 inches of rain total last year, which is 2 feet more than it normally does. Mickey Diamond, a cotton and peanut farmer in Jay, said his town saw more than 100 inches of rain.
The rain was relentless, farmers said. It didn’t just come in a handful of big weather events like it usually does. Instead, the rain came just about once a week, every week, during the fall and winter, drenching crops, fields and equipment and giving nothing a chance to dry.
“We just kept losing the crop,” Helton said. “A half-inch of rain is not bad, but 2 to 3 inches at a time, every time, is bad. Just about every time, it had enough time to get dry, there was another rain event.”
Cotton, which is planted in the spring and usually harvested by Thanksgiving, was drenched before it had a chance to sprout. The cotton that was lucky enough to sprout was drenched by rain and unable to be picked up by the equipment.
Helton also has about 400 acres of peanut fields he can’t harvest, since his equipment can’t make it through the muddy fields. Even if it could, it wouldn’t do much good, since the vines are rotted from so much rain and the peanuts shake off the stems too easily to be picked up by the machine.
Diamond, the Jay farmer, has acres of fields still planted with cotton, when he’d normally be planting cover crops by now, which are crops like wheat or oats usually planted between winter and spring that can keep the soil from eroding until it’s time to plant new, bigger crops.
“It’s been an unreal hard year this year for farmers,” Diamond said. “One of the worst we’ve ever seen.”
A normal amount of yearly rainfall for the extreme western Panhandle region is about 65 inches, according to the National Weather Service in Mobile, Ala.
Of the 90 inches of rain logged in Pensacola in 2018, 16.55 inches came just in the month of December, hampering farmers’ last-ditch efforts to get all of their crop out of the ground before the new year.
“We hope to be done by Thanksgiving every year,” Diamond said. “Right now, we’re a long way from being through.”
Farmers made it through the first half of the year being optimistic about the 2018 crop. Rains had been steady but held off at the right times, and farmers were thinking they’d be turning large profits if the trend continued.
“On the first of August, this county probably had the best cotton crop we’ve seen in 30 years,” Diamond said. “We had a lot of pounds per acre, a lot of lint. But from the first day of August, it all went downhill from there.”
Tropical Storm Gordon blew through in September and decimated farmers’ crops, blowing over entire fields of cotton and drenching the soil. Rain from Hurricane Michael in October further added to farmers’ woes when it dumped at least 7 inches in the northern part of the counties.
Almost weekly rain events followed all the way into the new year, killing crops in a slow death, bringing farmers to their knees. The cotton, which needs water to grow but needs to stay dry once it blooms, was a soggy mess, hanging off its stems like a head too heavy for its body. The peanuts sat in a muddy, mucky mess in their rows in the fields, buried in mud and not able to get out into the sunlight to dry.
“We put every penny we could spend into that ground,” Helton said, standing in the middle of his peanut field, which he said will just wind up being next year’s fertilizer. “It wasn’t like it just happened in the spring with a June hailstorm that wiped out our crop. It was once a week, every week.”
Agriculture is big business in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties. According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture Census study from 2012, the most recent year for which data is available, Escambia and Santa Rosa counties sold more than $100 million worth of agriculture products, including peanuts, cotton, soybeans and watermelon, in 2012. The counties also consistently lead the state of Florida in cotton and peanut production.
The vast majority of agriculture takes place in the northern end of the counties, where seemingly endless fields of crops and farms replace the endless rows of condos and housing developments characteristic of the southern end of the counties.
“Farming is a way of life,” Diamond said. At 52 years old, he said he’s been farming his entire life. “Farming ain’t for everybody. It takes a lot of faith, a lot of trust in the good Lord to provide for us so we can survive.”
Helton and his brother run Helton Brothers Farms, which owns seven farms in Century, Florida, and Atmore, Alabama, totaling more than 3,500 acres. At 63 years old, Rodney is a third-generation farmer who started learning the ropes from his father when he was 16.
Over the past five decades, Helton said he knows to expect to have a bad season every so often. He used to be a pecan farmer, until Hurricane Ivan blew over every single one of his pecan trees in 2004. But even that wasn’t as bad as the loss he’s experienced in the past year.
“Lately, it’s been happening way too often,” he said of bad farming seasons. “Last year was pretty bad, too. We had a lot of ground we couldn’t get planted because it was so wet and the harvest season was kind of rough. We’ve had a couple of bad years, but one every 10 years is all you want.”
Helton estimates he lost about $900,000 in profit in 2018 due to the rain, mostly in peanut and cotton crops. That’s about 1,000 bales of cotton and more than 1,000 tons of peanuts.
In Jay, Diamond said he was still in the process of counting his losses. As much as 20 percent of his cotton crop is still in the ground.
“You would need about 900 pounds of cotton crop to break even, and we’re nowhere close to that,” he said. “I would say our cotton crop took a hit of about $100 to $300 an acre.”
In towns like Jay and Century, where everyone is touched by agriculture in one way or another, last year’s losses are being felt by many.
“Most people don’t understand the reality of a rain event like this for us,” Diamond said. “The trickle down effect of a bad crop in a small town like Jay, Florida, means everyone will feel it.”
Diamond said many farmers like him are late paying their bills since they haven’t been able to pull their cotton out of the ground at the time of year they normally would. Everyone from banks to timber companies to farmhands are feeling the sting of the rainy season.
“We’re behind on everything because we can’t get into the field to finish nothing,” he said. “You can’t work outside.”
In addition to poor crops, local cotton farmers say they’re also being hit by a series of tariffs imposed on goods, including cotton, by the Trump administration in September that has driven the price of cotton down as much as 20 cents per pound. Farmers like Diamond are reluctant to sell the cotton they do have until the market price goes back up.
Still, it’s too early for experts to be able to quantify the exact impact last year’s losses will have on the local economy, but most agree it likely won’t be pretty.
“Imagine a man who owns a hardware store who loses 20 percent of his stock,” Diamond said. “It’s the same way for us.”
If as much as 20 percent of crop production was lost last year, economists at the University of West Florida’s Haas Center say it would mean an almost $12 million loss in earnings for local farmers. It could also impact as many as 390 jobs and lose as much as $1.4 million in taxes on production and imports.
But farmers like Helton and Diamond are keeping their heads up. They’ll continue to work the ground as much as they can until their crop is out of the fields, and next year, when spring comes, they’ll do it all over again.
Helton tries not to worry about the weather too much, he says. If he does, it’ll probably kill him.
“I figured out a long time ago that if I was going to survive what I’m doing, I’ve got to worry about things that I can change,” he said. “Don’t worry about the things you can’t change. It’ll just kill you, internally.
“So I stick about $3 million in the dirt every year and just hope to get it back,” he added.
Diamond said savings from years he’s had good crops and his faith in God have kept him afloat this year. But he’s hopeful God will send less rains in 2019.
“You know what’s coming, you know there’s going to be good crops and bad crops,” he said. “We’ve got faith that maybe it’s going to get better.”