Perseverance a Priority for Florida Farmers Post-Irma

Swamped citrus in Southwest Florida
This citrus grove in Southwest Florida was left swamped by Hurricane Irma. 
Photo by Monica Ozores-Hampton

As Florida’s Commissioner of Agriculture since 2011, Adam Putnam has seen the state’s growers survive a host of challenges, including citrus greening, Oriental fruit flies, screwworms, and misdirected water management regulations. Now, Florida growers must rebound from the statewide wind and water destruction from Hurricane Irma.

Putnam was the keynote speaker at the closing dinner of FFVA 2017, the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association’s 74th annual convention. Although he touched on other key agricultural issues, his focus was on the aftermath of the Sept. 10-11 hurricane, which was a Category 4 storm when it made landfall in the Florida Keys. Although it lost some strength as it made its way up the heartland of the state, the storm devastated agriculture operations in its path.

“Now is our gut-check time,” said Putnam during the closing dinner at FFVA 2017. “We are tough and resilient and we will persevere, putting one foot in front of the other as we replant and continue doing what we do best: feeding our state, our country and the world.”

Putnam told the crowd he would soon present the needs of Florida’s agricultural sector to Congress and ask for short-term federal disaster relief. “This is the fastest way to get help to the U.S. farmers impacted by Harvey, Irma, and Maria,” he said. “Our goal is to get the relief funds structured in such a way that real farmers can get real help to get their crops back in the field.”

The leading Republican candidate for Florida governor, Putnam said he traveled the state in the two weeks after Irma examining the extent of the damage and documenting the agricultural sector’s need for federal assistance.

“Unlike other hurricanes, Irma was the size of Texas, and virtually all of Florida was seriously affected, including the dairy, citrus, sugar, landscaping, and nursery industries. We recently flew [U.S. Secretary of Agriculture] Sonny Perdue over Central and Southwest Florida and it was heartbreaking to see the scope of destruction.”

But Putnam said he was heartened by the strides being made by growers around the state as they begin to recover from the hurricane. “We have seen new plants in the ground, plastic being rolled over the soil, crews putting trees back up, and shadehouses being stitched back together,” he said. “The hurricane also has created a sense of community as families, friends, and neighbors help each other out in their businesses and their homes. A disaster like Irma brings out the best in people, not the worst.”

In that vein, Putnam told the story of a meeting with the mayor of Everglades City, a community on the southwest Gulf Coast that was devastated by Irma’s storm surge. “Although two-thirds of the homes were uninhabitable and flood-damaged furniture and appliances littered the roadside, he wanted to send their relief supplies to Puerto Rico,” Putnam said. “He told me, ‘We deeply appreciate the generosity of the agencies, the churches, and the National Guard, but the people of Puerto Rico need help far more than we do.’ He was thinking about our neighbor in the Caribbean in a way that tells us about who we are as a nation.”

Putnam added that Florida could soon see an influx of newcomers from Puerto Rico as the U.S. territory struggles to rebuild its infrastructure and economy. “We will welcome those families with open arms,” he added. “There also is likely to be an influx of people looking to work in areas like construction and agriculture, and we’ll be darned glad to have them here.”

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