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Harris Blackwood: South Georgia farmers and a loan shark named Michael
Harris Blackwood
Harris Blackwood

There are folks that will tell you that gambling is not legal in Georgia. Maybe the kind of gambling that takes place in casinos is against the law, but there are folks who take a mighty big roll of the dice each year.

They are called farmers.

Each year, farmers look at an empty field, a blank slate, and decide based on the market and the history of that field what they will plant.

I spent a few years as a reporter in Southwest Georgia and saw farmers live through horrendous drought, too much rain at the wrong time and high-interest costs that drove many farmers into financial ruin.

There are fewer farmers now growing food and fiber on more acres of land. Some of the land they own, other acreage is rented. A farmer growing corn, peanuts, soybeans or cotton can have costs of $400 to $700 per acre, depending on what they grow.

It also depends on how often they have to use irrigation and how often they have to spray to control pests or disease.

If a farmer has 500 acres of farmland, he has to put down somewhere between $200,000 to $350,000 just to get started. Often, because of the cash flow, the money is borrowed.

The payoff comes at the end of the season when the crop is sold. The lender gets repaid and the farmer earns his income. About the time the crop comes in, it’s time to pay property taxes on the land. After that, he has to pay state and federal income tax.

It’s an expensive gamble.

This year, there had been a good mix of sunny and rainy days, the crop was looking good and then came Michael, the hurricane.

There were places where cotton was being harvested. Where the job wasn’t finished, it seemed Michael did the rest. Cotton stalks were picked clean by high winds.

Peanuts and soybeans were soaked in the flood and more than likely will become victims of mold.

It’s been said that Georgia has more pine trees than people in some places. I’ve heard of timber growers who had 300 or more acres of trees leveled by the storm. Pine trees take years to grow to full size. You get the picture.

The farming towns are dependent on farmers. The hardware store, the tractor dealership, the grocery store and the pharmacy count on the farmers and their workers.

Places like Bainbridge, Colquitt, Donalsonville, Cordele, and even the larger city of Albany had widespread damage. Some of the electric cooperatives had almost all of their customers without power. This isn’t just a matter of hanging wires back on poles, it is a total rebuild. Some folks won’t have electricity for weeks.

A college friend of my daughter is from Colquitt, the seat of Miller County, which is near the point where Georgia, Florida and Alabama come together. She has been in Birmingham with her baby, who was born prematurely a few weeks ago. She and her husband have a small farm that was severely damaged by the hurricane.

To say their wagon is loaded is an understatement.

Most of the federal disaster programs offer farmers another loan. When you’ve got a year’s worth of debt and then borrow more, it makes getting your head above water even more difficult.

I don’t have an answer, but agriculture is the No. 1 industry in Georgia and we don’t need to lose any more of our good, family farmers.

Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose columns appear on the Sunday Life page and on www.gainesvilletimes.com.

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