Florida Farmers Digging out From Impacts of Irma

[updated Oct. 17, 12:25 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.

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 Growers 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.

Based at the UF/IFAS Southwest Florida Research and Education Center in Immokalee, Assistant Professor of Vegetable Horticulture Monica Ozores-Hampton has had a chance to scan many farm scenes subject to the storm’s fury. Though she has been awestruck by extensive flooding in vegetable and citrus fields, as well as concerned about the long-term impact this might have on the industry, Ozores-Hampton also is confident in Florida farming’s ability to bounce back. “Growers are used to adversity,” she said. “Also, they may have lower volumes of fruit and vegetable, but with higher prices — I hope! Where there is a challenge, there’s opportunity.”

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 one to two 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. Dudley Calfee, President of the Florida Blueberry Growers Association (FBGA), has documented reports of lost leaves, flooded fields, and plants blown out their beds.

While it’s not sure how the storm will affect overall blueberry production next spring, Calfee is insistent every grower who had damage (even the slightest) to report it to their local Farm Service Agency. “If you don’t report your damage, then we could find ourselves in the same position as two years ago when under-reporting caused us to lose millions of dollars in assistance for what was truly a disastrous season,” Calfee stated in a letter to FBGA members.

“There is little doubt that Hurricane Irma will affect our harvest,” Calfee said. “How much? Time will tell. I have confidence that we will come through this stronger and smarter.”

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. “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.”

USDA has officially designated 19 counties in Florida as a primary disaster area plus another 25 counties as contiguous disaster areas.

Primary counties include: Alachua, Bradford, Broward, Charlotte, Collier, Gilchrist, Glades, Hendry, Highlands, Hillsborough, Indian River, Lake, Lee, Marion, Miami-Dade, Monroe, Osceola, Palm Beach, and Sumter

Contiguous counties include: Baker, Brevard, Citrus, Clay, Columbia, DeSoto, Dixie, Hardee, Hernando, Lafayette, Levy, Manatee, Martin, Okeechobee, Orange, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk, Putnam, St. Lucie, Sarasota, Seminole, Suwannee, Union, and Volusia

The declaration allows farmers and ranchers in these counties access to support from the Farm Service Agency. Producers in eligible counties have 8 months from the date of disaster declaration to apply for emergency loans.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott also has activated a $25 million Florida Citrus Emergency Loan Program to support citrus growers impacted by Hurricane Irma. The bridge loan program, managed by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO), will provide interest-free loans to citrus growers that experienced physical or economic damage during the storm. The application period will be open through November 30.

DEO will administer the Florida Citrus Emergency Loan Program in partnership with the Florida SBDC Network to provide cash flow to businesses damaged by a disaster. The interest-free loans will help bridge the gap between the time damage is incurred and when a business secures other financial resources, including payment of crop insurance claims or federal disaster recovery appropriations. Up to $25 million has been allocated for the program.

Citrus growers who maintain a citrus grove in production in any of Florida’s 67 counties affected by Hurricane Irma can apply for loans up to $150,000. These interest-free loans are granted in terms of up to one year. To be eligible, a grower must have been established prior to Sept. 4, 2017, and demonstrate economic injury or physical damage as a result of Hurricane Irma.

To complete an application by the deadline, or for more information on the program, visit Floridadisasterloan.org.

Beyond crop and structure damage, many farmworkers and their families have had their world turned upside down by Irma. As a response to those in need, the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association (FFVA) is raising funds to help the Redlands Christian Migrant Association (RCMA) to provide immediate basic living essentials and temporary housing needs to farmworker families. The goal is to raise $100,000 for RCMA.

During the recent FFVA Annual Convention, Monsanto donated $50,000 to the fund. In addition, Ag First, CoBank, and Florida Farm Credit jointly donated $15,000 during the convention.

To learn more and make a donation, visit the Florida Specialty Crop Foundation’s support page.

Similarly, the Florida Farm Bureau has set up a Hurricane Irma Relief Fund for Agriculture. According to the association, the Florida Farm Bureau Women’s Fund is accepting tax-deductible donations to aid in relief to Florida agriculture devastated by the storm. More details can be found at Floridafarmbureau.org/hurricane-irma-relief-fund.

Going forward, McAvoy says now is the time for farmers 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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