1. News
  2. /
  3. Florida

Florida timber farmers face tough choices year after Michael

“It’s hard to describe how sick I felt when I came out here,” Leonard said as he surveyed a stand of snapped 30-year-old slash pine.
In this Oct. 5, 2019 photo, Daniel Leonard and his father Joe, right, stand near a heap of lumber on their family's property. The massive storm killed more than two dozen people in northern Florida, destroyed hundreds of homes and brought catastrophic damage to the region’s timber industry. [BOBBY CAINA CALVAN | AP]
Published Oct. 10

BLOUNTSTOWN, Fla. — The sunsets are a sight to behold in Joe Leonard’s neck of the woods these days. A year ago, lush stands of towering pines obscured the horizon, he said as he drove his pickup along a dusty Florida Panhandle road. Now, fields of thick grass mask row after row of stumps decaying into the soil that has sustained his family for five generations.

Up the road, heaps of rotting logs lay bare the scars that Hurricane Michael left last October when it ploughed through the region.

"It's hard to describe how sick I felt when I came out here," Leonard said as he surveyed a stand of snapped 30-year-old slash pine, their trunks big enough for a full bear hug.

Joe Leonard stands on his property in Blounstown, Fla. The family's timber business was devastated by Hurricane Michael a year ago. The massive storm killed more than two dozen people in northern Florida, destroyed hundreds of homes and brought catastrophic damage to the region’s timber industry. [BOBBY CAINA CALVAN | AP]

The massive storm crashed ashore as a Category 5 hurricane with winds exceeding 160 mph, the strongest ever recorded to hit Florida’s northern Gulf Coast. The storm killed more than two dozen people in the region, destroyed or damaged tens of thousands of homes and wrought catastrophic damage on the region’s timber industry.

It's been an excruciating year for the Leonards and other Panhandle families who make their living off the land. A year after Michael, they face wrenching decisions about how to carry on.

Less than a fifth of the 2.8 million acres of timberland destroyed by Hurricane Michael have been salvaged. Tons of timber will most likely be left to rot. There are so many fallen logs that they’d fill more than 2.6 million logging trucks, which would circle the equator 1.5 times if parked end on end.

Trees once towered over much of Calhoun County, an inland expanse of tiny communities surrounded by forests that suffered the most catastrophic damage to the region's timberland.

Stands of pines, once just steps from Leonard's front door, are now mostly gone.

"One of the benefits is that now we see sunrises and sunsets in a way we've never seen before," he said.

Without financial help, some timber farmers are looking for buyers.

Federal relief hasn’t come fast enough, even though the government authorized a $19 billion relief package — held in limbo until this past summer because of political clashes in Washington — to assist communities across the country hit by wildfires, flooding, tornadoes, and hurricanes. Florida officials estimate that the timber industry sustained nearly $1.3 billion in losses.

Across the road from the Leonards, Michael Eldridge isn’t expecting any help soon as he continues to grapple with the devastation Michael wrought across his 360 acres.

"There was nothing standing," he said. "Pitiful. Unbelievable. All these 33-year-old trees down like pick-up sticks, all laying atop one another."

He sold his entire herd of cattle — 113 cows, bulls and calves — instead of spending the money to rebuild fences that went down with his trees.

RELATED: A year after Michael, Florida community still in crisis

"My wife and I planted them as a supplement to our retirement, and it didn't work out that way," said Eldridge, who has lived in Calhoun County all of his 72 years. "I thought it was a good investment."

For now, there are no plans to sell. Where else would he go; what else would he do?

"I might as well stay here fighting," Eldridge said. "That's what I'm going to do until the day I die."

Like Eldridge, many of the region's timber growers operate mom-and-pop farms, some a couple dozen acres and others in the thousands. Unlike corporate landowners, few of these small-time tree growers can withstand upheavals like Michael.

Unlike cotton and oranges, timber isn't usually insurable for loss. And unlike row crops that can bounce back more quickly, trees require generations to recover. A tree needs a dozen years before being harvested for pulp — and at least twice that time to harden into more lucrative lumber.

For some farmers, the new math doesn't add up, according to Alan Shelby, the executive vice president of the Florida Forestry Association.

In this Oct. 5, 2019 photo, Daniel Leonard, counts the rings on a stump outside his neighbor's house in Blounstown, Fla. The Leonard family lost hundreds of acres of timber during Hurricane Michael, and are agonizing over what to do. The massive storm killed more than two dozen people in northern Florida, destroyed hundreds of homes and brought catastrophic damage to the region’s timber industry. [BOBBY CAINA CALVAN | AP]

"There are many who simply don't have the money to clean it up. They may try and sell the property. Or they may just leave it and let Mother Nature take its course," Shelby said.

By some estimates, an acre of 30-year-old trees might fetch about $2,500. Clearing an acre of downed trees and replanting costs about $1,300 up front.

"It takes more than a broom and it takes more than your typical farm equipment," he said.

It requires an army of loggers and equipment operators with chain saws and timber loaders to hoist fallen logs onto trucks.

All that requires loads of money, as well as a strong will to carry on, said Leonard, 59, whose family arrived in northern Florida from the Carolinas in the early 1900s.

"My mother doesn't want to sell. My brother and I aren't going to sell. But what happens after we're gone?" Leonard asked.

His son Daniel, 28, expresses some of the uncertainty.

"To be honest with you, I'm not advocating that we go totally back to the timber. I would rather see us do something else. Let's diversify a little bit," he said.

His cousin Will Leonard, 29, a forester, also wonders how timber communities across the Panhandle will fare in the years to come, with the possibility that some mills could fall silent and jobs dwindle because of the catastrophic losses.

"This is a story that is going to have a much broader impact. It's not just about the growers," he said.

At the family farm, Daniel Leonard spoke of the fallen pines' rings, each representing a year in the tree's life but also recording the years his father, grandfather and those before them spent nurturing a livelihood they hoped would span generations.

“These trees have lots of stories to tell, but I’m sure they hadn’t seen anything like this,” he said. “Hurricane Michael was a once-in-a-generation kind of thing. Will we have another one in 20 years? I’m not so comfortable taking that risk.”


  1. FILE - In this Aug. 15, 2018 file photo, Florida school shooting suspect Nikolas Cruz listens during a status check on his case at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. As his death penalty trial draws closer, a hearing is set for school shooting defendant Cruz in the 2018 massacre that killed 17 people. The hearing Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019, likely concerns the setting of timelines leading up to the planned January trial of the 21-year-old Cruz. AMY BETH BENNETT  |  AP
    The hearing Wednesday likely concerns the setting of timelines leading up to the planned January trial of the 21-year-old Cruz.
  2. Herman Lindsey, a former death row inmate who was exonerated, holds a letter that he and other wrongfully convicted men delivered Tuesday to the office of Gov. Ron DeSantis, asking him to stop the execution of James Dailey. Witness to Innocence
    Former death row inmates delivered a letter to the governor’s office Tuesday asking him to stay the execution of James Dailey over questions of innocence. DeSantis won’t budge.
  3. West Palm Beach police spokeswoman Molly Anderson said during a news conference on Tuesday that Department of Homeland Security agents arrested Rudelmiro Santizo Perez on Monday in Houston as he tried to flee to Guatemala. West Palm Beach Police Department/Facebook
    Police began investigating on Oct. 3 when a hidden camera was found inside an employee bathroom at St. Mary’s Medical Center.
  4. This Monday, Oct. 21, 2019, photo shows the graded dirt surface where sod will be placed in November inside what will be the stadium for David Beckham’s Inter Miami MLS soccer team that opens its inaugural season in 2020 at the site of the former Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. TIM REYNOLDS  |  AP
    Construction is on schedule, with all signals pointing toward everything being ready for the team’s first home match that’s likely to come in March.
  5. FILE - In this March 15, 2018, file photo, emergency personnel respond after a new pedestrian bridge collapsed onto a highway at Florida International University in Miami. Federal transportation officials say that Louis Berger Group, Inc., the firm charged with reviewing the design of the FIU bridge that collapsed and killed six people, was not properly qualified by the state. PEDRO PORTAL  |  AP
    National Transportation Safety Board members concluded Tuesday the design firm FIGG Bridge Engineers, Inc. underestimated the load of the bridge.
  6. Brummit has been a prep cook at the Aloft Hotel. Now he's being held without bond. Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida/Facebook
    Johnny Brummit became involved in an Oct. 17 dispute between a girlfriend and a bus station security officer, Orange County Sheriff’s officials say.
  7. The sign for Tyrone Square Mall. JAY CONNNER  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The story behind the ever-present name involves St. Pete’s first airport and a bootlegging mogul.
  8. Broward Sheriff's Sgt. Donald Prichard tells the South Florida SunSentinel that 39-year-old Christopher Randazzo was killed early Saturday morning. His body was found at the Southern Seas Resort in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. Coral Springs Fire Department/Facebook
    Christopher Randazzo had worked for the Coral Springs-Parkland Fire Department since March. Division Chief Mike Moser says funeral arrangements are pending.
  9. Melvin Morris is seen in this undated photo by Nick Del Calzo. NICK DEL CALZO  |  Photo by
    Some were born in Florida. Others joined up here. All received the nation’s highest award for valor in action against an enemy force.
  10. Among the speakers at Big Brothers, Big Sisters news conference in Tampa on Monday were police Officer Joel McKee and his Bigs in Blue match Princeton, a student at Pizzo Elementary. TONY MARRERO  |  Tony Marrero
    The money will help the non-profit create more mentoring matches across the country and here in Tampa Bay.