Florida Farmers Digging out From Impacts of Irma

[updated Sept. 18, 6:00 p.m.]

Less than one year after being sideswiped by major Hurricane Matthew, the state of Florida took another big blow from the tropics, this time from historic Hurricane Irma.

The monster system — which ballooned to as much as 500 miles wide — rampaged through the Leeward Islands and the Bahamas as an extremely strong Category 5 storm. Along the way to Florida — after trashing northern Cuba — the hurricane passed over Cudjoe Key, made landfall at Marco Island, and cut a path of destruction coast to coast as it churned northward up the peninsula.

While millions of people prepped and fled ahead of the storm, Florida farmers put in extra time to protect what they could. Gene McAvoy, Hendry County UF/IFAS Extension Agent based in LaBelle and longtime Florida Grower® magazine contributor, was expecting farms in his area to see everything from flooded fields and groves, plastic lifted and torn, plants sandblasted and cut off, citrus trees blown over, branches broken, and fruit blown off trees. At first glance following the storm, he was right.

“Fortunately, we are fairly early in the season with about 25% to 30% of plastic down, but growers have only been planting for about three weeks, so maybe 10% [maybe 15%] of crop is in the ground,” he said. 

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Within two days after the storm, Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam took an aerial tour to survey areas impacted by Hurricane Irma, including citrus groves in Central and Southwest parts of the state. “It’s still too early to know the full extent of the damage to Florida citrus,” he stated at the time. “But after touring groves on foot and by air, it’s clear that our signature crop has suffered serious and devastating losses from Hurricane Irma.”

A full week after the storm, Putnam — along with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, Senator Marco Rubio, Congressman Tom Rooney, and Congressman Mario Díaz-Balart — surveyed more farm damage and met with affected farmers in Clewiston.

Ray Royce, Executive Director of the Highlands County Citrus Grower Association, says what he is hearing from growers in his area and seeing first hand is not pretty: “lots of fruit on the ground and beat-up trees.”

Royce estimates around 50% crop loss in most groves in Highlands County, with some areas being hit even harder. The fruit that wasn’t initially blown off the trees has been dropping over the last several days due to the major stress dealt by the storm. The fruit still hanging on is yellowing and could likely to drop, too, he suspects. To that end, Royce is encouraging HCCGA members to pick several representative trees in each block and document photographically and track whether or not there continues to be significant additional drop in the coming days or weeks.

His take-home message for now is direct: “Assume nothing and document everything.”

In a memo sent out to Florida Citrus Mutual (FCM) members, Mike Sparks, Executive VP, said: “It appears the damage is more intense than we initially believed. There are reports of major tree damage including uprooted trees across the middle of the state and Southwest Florida. Fruit loss is estimated at 50% and higher. In the Indian River area and Southwest Florida groves, there is a lot of standing water and fruit on the ground.”

FCM is pursuing various planting incentive programs at the state and federal level to get citrus trees back in the ground. According to Sparks, a key component to the proposed legislative requests is specific damage information from growers. To help the process along, Sparks is asking growers take a few minutes to fill out a crop damage survey. The questions include:

  1. What county(s) and how many acres do you manage?
  2. Estimate total fruit loss as a percentage
  3. Estimate the acute wind damage to trees as a percentage
  4. Estimate acres in standing water as total acres and as a percentage

Responses should be emailed to [email protected] by Thursday, Sept. 21.

Around the Tri-County Agricultural Area (TCAA) in the northeastern part of the state, farms were in the line of fire from Irma’s ire. According to Bonnie C. Wells, Doctor of Plant Medicine and UF/IFAS Commercial Agriculture Extension Agent based in St. Augustine, the major storm ravaged nearly 200 acres of Asian vegetable crops in St. Johns County. That area also was hit particularly hard by Hurricane Matthew.

“Small acreages of field corn and sweet potatoes also were impacted,” Wells adds.

While there were multiple crops in the ground compromised by Irma’s inundating rain and unrelenting wind, Wells cautions the storm’s ramifications are far from over for growers in the TCAA. “One of the largest impacts for agriculture in the county will be for cabbage, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts growers who will have to delay planting by 1 to 2 weeks during the peak fall growing window because of water-logged soils.”

Specialty crop growers of all kinds across the state are feeling the pain. The Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association (FNGLA) is reporting the state’s many ornamental plant and tree nurseries also have endured significant structural damages and expect sizeable crop loss. Flooding concerns and lack of power are continuing to plague producers, even well after Irma has moved on. “It’s way too early to tally the losses, yet we know most of the state’s nursery and greenhouse crop growers are impacted,” said FNGLA CEO Ben Bolusky. “Almost all have lost some and some have lost all.”

A major disaster declaration was requested by Florida Gov. Rick Scott and granted for the following counties:  Alachua, Baker, Bradford, Brevard, Broward, Charlotte, Citrus, Clay, Collier, Columbia, DeSoto, Dixie, Duval, Flagler, Gilchrist, Glades, Hardee, Hendry, Hernando, Highlands, Hillsborough, Indian River, Lafayette, Lake, Lee, Levy, Manatee, Marion, Martin, Miami-Dade, Monroe, Nassau, Okeechobee, Orange, Osceola, Pasco, Palm Beach, Pinellas, Polk, Putnam, Sarasota, Seminole, St. Johns, St. Lucie, Sumter, Suwannee, Union, and Volusia.

Going forward, McAvoy says now is the time to assess damage, file disaster claims, replant, and increase fungicide and disease management efforts. “Growers are resilient, and this is not the first rodeo for most,” he said.

This story will be updated as the situation progresses.

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