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Florida citrus hit hard by Hurricane Irma

The nation watched as Hurricane Irma first moved west and then east, slowly traversing the length of Florida with the eye of the storm traveling fairly close to the center of the state. While this action resulted in less storm surge in many coastal towns, it also resulted in the entire state getting drenched with a huge amount of rain and devastating winds.

With the storm downgraded and moving further north within the continental United States, power started to be restored, business owners assessed damage and growers inspected their fields and groves.

Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, based in Maitland, FL, spent Monday and Tuesday, Sept. 11-12, looking for pockets of cell service and making and taking calls from members and industry leaders from south to north. On Sept. 12, he participated in a conference call with various ag sectors representatives who had done the same thing.

Florida has tens of thousands of farms and millions of acres of production. Everything from livestock to sugarcane to field crops was adversely affected. In the fresh sector, vegetables and citrus are the top categories but the Sunshine State literally has sizable production in hundreds of items.

“It could have been worse,” Stuart said. “When it moved onshore, it weakened and hopefully minimized the damage.”

However, Stuart admitted the word “minimize” was a relative term. “It was a heck of a system. Half the state is still without power. I went 28 hours with no cell service.”

He said early estimates vary widely, but indications are that the citrus damage ranges from around 30 percent to 70 percent. Harvest was just getting under way as September dawned. Citrus can stay on the tree for an extended period of time, so logistical issues, while huge, aren’t the problem.

Stuart said there appears to be “lots of fruit drop,” which will reduce this year’s crop, but not a lot of permanent damage to the trees. That is a bit of good news as Florida citrus acreage has been in steep decline in recent years because of the greening issue. Estimates for this year’s acreage was around 450,000 acres, representing a drop of about 5 percent from last year.

The FFVA executive lamented that “citrus growers can’t catch a break. This is going to hurt. You need volume to make it profitable.” They’ve had some tough years and this year doesn’t appear as if it is going to be any better.

The vegetable side of the industry did fare better largely because of the timing of the storm. “Right now there is hardly anything being harvested,” Stuart said.

In fact, he noted that crops for fall and winter production have not even been planted yet. However, growers were preparing their fields for that eventuality and had begun laying down plastic as part of the process. Certainly a good portion of that preparation will have to begin anew.

Reporting from the viewpoints expressed on the conference call, Stuart said there would be delays that most likely will result in reduced production of many vegetables early in the season. He said late-October and early-November production numbers will reflect the delay in plantings. But he said those growers should be able to get back in their fields in the next couple of weeks and get back on track. He said the process can -- and will -- be sped up by the use of transplants from other locations.

One real concern is lack of labor. Labor shortages have become quite common, and it is realistic to believe that a measurable percentage of workers left the area ahead of the storm and have found work elsewhere. Stuart said that in 2004 and 2005, when Florida was last hit with significant hurricanes, finding sufficient labor proved challenging.

Government and private aid is streaming into the state, but it will take a cadre of workers to clean up the debris in virtually every town, let alone prepare the fields and plant the crops.

The ag industry leaders will also be reassessing the situation in the weeks ahead as more areas can be surveyed and challenges revealed.