Tornado-damaged telecom tower cripples farming efforts

Even if their farms were not in the path of the April 11 tornado, hundreds of farmers will feel the loss of the massive communications tower in Noxubee County.

The 300-foot microwave tower in Noxubee county took a direct hit from Thursday's tornado, knocking out a guidance system  provides pinpoint accuracy for planting and chemical applications.

The 300-foot microwave tower in Noxubee County took a direct hit from Thursday’s tornado, knocking out a guidance system that provides pinpoint accuracy for planting and chemical applications.

The 300-foot-tall microwave tower located in the middle of a soybean field just northeast of Macon provided about 200 farmers and others with broadband Internet and with GPS signals that guide tractors during fieldwork.

Dennis Reginelli, area agronomics crops agent with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said alternative sources remain available, but they are less accurate.

“The guidance system from that tower was able to provide pinpoint accuracy for planting and chemical applications on a field,” he said. “Now with the larger equipment, farmers will have to concentrate harder to maintain accuracy and avoid waste.”

Major farming operations use tractors equipped with Real Time Kinematic, or RTK-GPS, which allows farmers to track exactly where they have been in a field. The process eliminates overlapping or missing portions of the field.

Ralph McLain, co-owner of Teletec Communications of Columbus, said his company purchased the tower from AT&T about 20 years ago. The tower took a direct hit from the tornado, and twisted and fell across the muddy soybean field.

“The first challenge will be removing hundreds of thousands of pounds of scrap metal. We are still looking for a source to take it,” he said the day after the storm. “Cleaning it up will be a major undertaking with only a small access road and pretty muddy conditions all around it. It will take heavy equipment to lift it.”

McLain said the tower, which had a 40-by-40-foot base, was located on an acre of ground with easement rights through the field. In addition to the service for farmers, the tower provided rural Internet and two-way radio communications for utilities and public services.

“We are still trying to determine the best location for a replacement, which will not be as large as the destroyed tower,” he said. “Our goal is to have the new one up in about a month. We know how important this is to the farmers and everyone else in the area.”

Reginelli said several farms took direct hits that day.

“We are fortunate that this is a rural county because this tornado had some force when it was on the ground,” he said. “Two farms received serious damage with shops, barns, grain bins, center pivots and equipment now gone from the tornado.”

Reginelli said timberland received serious damage around the Bigbee Valley area and in the Shuqualak area.

Rain concerns may sound trivial in light of the damage, but corn growers were already feeling the pressure to finish planting.

“We received about 3 inches of rain across the county which puts yet another stop to our corn planting,” he said.

(Courtesy of Linda Breazeale of MSU Extension Service)



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