The horticulture industry responds to Hurricane Michael

The horticulture industry responds to Hurricane Michael

As communities in areas hit by the storm begin the recovery process, so do greenhouses and nurseries.

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When Hurricane Michael made landfall in the United States on Oct. 10, it was the strongest hurricane to make landfall in the U.S. since Hurricane Andrew in 1992. The storm, which is still active as of Oct. 12, smashed into the Florida Panhandle and barreled up through Georgia and into the Carolinas and Virginia. To date, Hurricane Michael is believed to have killed more than a dozen people and caused billions of dollars of damage. Both of these numbers are expected to rise as the storm progresses.

In affected areas, greenhouses and nurseries are dealing with the aftermath of the storm as well, working to reinstate some semblance of normal as best they can.

Straightening back up

Mike Wright owns Morning Dew Greenhouse and Nursery in Statesville, North Carolina. In Statesville, a man was killed during the storm when a tree fell onto his car as he drove down the highway, according to local media reports. The rest of the community, Wright says, is feeling lucky that more damage wasn’t done.

“It's rough on anybody. Half the roads around here are flooded out,” he says. “Everybody is still feeling fortunate that they got out without as much damage as there could have been.”

Wright says that his business did not suffer any severe damage, and that the worst of the hurricane hit to the east of Statesville. He says seven inches of rain fell in Statesville and that his clean-up consisted of picking up mums, ornamental kale and other plants that had been blown over in the storm and re-potting them.

"Everything with blown over, completely off of the shelves and outside,” Wright says. “And that's what I've done all morning is straighten it back up."

He hopes that now that the sun is back out in Statesville, customers will begin coming back to his business.

“It kills the business,” he said of the storm.

ALSO READ: Hurricane Michael recovery efforts underway at Tallahassee garden centers
Although Florida's capital city was not hit as hard as predicted, businesses and residents are still dealing with power outages, downed lines and damage.

Taking the storm as it comes

Hoffman Nursery in Rougemont, North Carolina closed its facility on Thursday, Oct. 11 after Hurricane Michael hit. While the business reopened the next day, owner John Hoffman reopened the business, but sent home employees at noon Friday due to the nursery still being without power. Hoffman says that he hopes to have internet back by Monday when the entire staff will be back.

"It's gorgeous down here, but we don't have power yet, which means no internet, which means it's very hard to do business,” he says. “We are trying to get the nursery up and going again."

Hoffman says that the damage to the business has been minimal. He says seven of the nursery’s cold frame greenhouses had some plastic ripped off, but that it will be stripped and repaired in the coming days. Trees came down on the road surrounding the business, but none near the business fell or did any damage. There was some flooding, but nothing that caused damage.

This also is not the first time that Hoffman has dealt with a hurricane either.  He says the business took cues from its experience with Hurricane Florence this past September. The basis for Hoffman’s prep for Hurricane Michael was based on what they did for Hurricane Florence, including installing extra strapping on greenhouses, moving all equipment inside, purchasing enough fuel to fire up generators and make sure anything that could blow away was secured. From there, all Hoffman could do was keep his fingers crossed and hope for the best.

“You can’t do anything to prevent it,” he says. “It's coming no matter what.”

Quickly rebuilding

On Friday, Chris Butts, executive director at Georgia Green Industry Association (GGIA), visited several nursery growers in Southwest Georgia. 

The hurricane overturned plant material at several of these nurseries, Butts says, and now they are without power that they would use for irrigation.

One nursery with greenhouse space lost all its poly covering, but its structures remained intact, Butts says.

“They can only pump so much water at any given time, and then they're looking forward a week or two out on the forecast on what temperatures are going to do and making plans to get poly back on and everything,” he says.

All of the growers are staying open and are ready to ship plants, and they’ve asked what they can do to help others. Butts says he’s been impressed with their resilience. “The first tree grower we went to [in the past] 24 hours they've got every single tree stood back up and staked, and they're watering,” Butts says.

Unexpected rains 

Torrential rains weren’t in the forecast for Roanoke, Virginia for Thursday morning. But by lunchtime, police had blocked off flooded streets.

Greenbrier Nurseries owner Jim Monroe says his store manager called him to say he couldn’t get back. “I said, 'Well just take another 30 minutes for lunch and then come on back,'” Monroe says. When the rain kept falling, the store manager couldn’t find a way back, and he went home. Eventually, Monroe sent everyone else home, too.

"Depending on what direction they were leaving from there, they had to go uphill or downhill,” Monroe says. “If they were going uphill, they went home. If they had to go down toward where the water was, they were kind of stuck. But everybody got home."

While no Greenbrier Nurseries employees were injured, the flooding decimated nursery inventory and hard-good inventory, pump houses for irrigation, irrigation lines and a storage stable. It seeped into hoophouses, and in the soil, reopened old wounds from Hurricane Florence. “We had really saturated ground here from Florence already,” Monroe says. “We were just hemorrhaging water out of the ground already, and then this happened.”

By 9 a.m. Friday, Monroe, assessing the damage, assumed the flooding had also destroyed the nursery’s vehicles and loaders. By that time, the rainclouds had dissipated, and the sun was out.

Greenbrier Nurseries is no stranger to flooding. A 2016 West Virginia flood not far from Greenbrier Nurseries’ wholesale nursery the state left 23 people dead. Monroe led an effort to raise money and gather supplies for people who were affected by the flood.

Now, horticulture professionals are offering assistance to Monroe. “I'll bet you I've had easily 100 messages from other people in the industry offering to help,” he says Friday morning. Among these are operations in North Carolina, Virginia and Pennsylvania that have said they can send crews to Roanoke to help Greenbrier Nurseries.

Monroe admires the “survivors” in the horticulture industry who made it through The Great Recession and other tough times, and are willing to help others. “They are people that are still around — people that have been through a lot of hard things at their business, and struggles, and they know how hard it is to run a small business — especially one that's so seasonal, and it's tied to living things,” he says. “When they say they are willing to help, they mean it. It's not just a backhanded gesture, they mean it."

Update - Oct. 15

According to Charles Hall, the executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers, Lewis Taylor Farms in Tifton, Georgia lost 10 to 15 greenhouses — the plastic, gutters and side curtains are all gone, according to Hall — but some structures remain.

The grower produces bell peppers, cucumbers, eggplant and other crops under cover. According to their website, Lewis Taylor has more than 900,000 square feet of greenhouse production space. 

Cornucopia Farms, an organic produce grower currently building hydroponic greenhouses in Marietta, Georgia, was not affected by the hurricane, according to president and CEO William Rodriguez.

Circle A Farms, a hydroponic grower in Cumming, Georgia, also escaped unscathed from the storm. According to owner Jeff Adams, they were hit by rain, but production was not impacted in any way.

Update - Oct. 17

When Hurricane Michael neared Dublin, Georgia, on Wednesday, Oct. 10, lettuce grower R & G Farm was prepared. Earlier that day, owner Colby Edwards had called their greenhouse manufacturer, who advised that they should let some air into their two greenhouses.

The roughly 60-mile-per-hour winds didn’t damage R & G Farm’s greenhouses, but the operation lost power, says owner Alexis Edwards, Colby's wife. Colby and their son, Riley, went outside around 11 p.m. to turn on the generator.

“It really wasn't as bad compared to what hit Mexico Beach in Florida — but to us, we’d never seen anything like that in Georgia, and [Riley] said, 'I've never been out in a storm like that before,’” Alexis recalls. “He's like 6’2”, 200 pounds, and he said, 'I was being blown just walking back from the house to the greenhouses.’”

The electric company restored power to R & G Farms within about 12 hours — a significantly shorter period of time than the four days it took to restore power when Hurricane Irma hit in September 2017. Because the Edwards had to visit the gas station multiple times in the aftermath of Irma, they made sure they stocked up on gas this time.

Alexis says the damage from Michael was not as severe as it was in much of the rest of Dublin. “[Colby] couldn't even get into his office because our town has the huge, old, big Oak trees, and they were all down going through the downtown area,” she says. “Power poles were snapped, power lines [were down] everywhere; the banks weren't even up and running in town.”

Update - Oct. 23

Hydroponic grower Pure Flavor has recently completed Phase 1 (25 acres) of a 75-acre greenhouse project in Fort Valley, Georgia. The company will be producing tomatoes and cucumbers year-round under the Georgia Grown label.

“We were very fortunate to avoid damage from the recent Hurricane Michael storm," said Chris Veillon, chief marketing officer of Pure Flavor. "Though we did experience an extreme of rain water, we did not have any structural damage. Our thoughts are with those who were affected by the storm."

Want to share your story? We’d love to hear from you. Drop us a line at cmanning@gie.net or pwilliams@gie.net, or call Chris Manning at 216-393-0265 or Patrick Williams at 216-393-0315

Photo courtesy of Jim Monroe