Florida agriculture losses after Hurricane Irma ‘a real gut punch'

Florida agricultural producers ventured into their fields and groves after Hurricane Irma to find oranges ripped from trees, shade houses gone, vegetable beds ruined, sugarcane flattened and power poles and lines down.

Statewide, the total agricultural cost of the storm will be in the billions, informal estimates suggest, the Florida Farm Bureau Federation said Thursday. Irma’s winds and rains caused widespread destruction of crops, buildings, fencing and other property. The most severe damage was in Southwest Florida.

“It was a real gut punch,” Florida Citrus Mutual spokesman Andrew Meadows said Thursday. “It went up through the heart of the industry. We are getting reports, all anecdotal now. I keep hearing up to 50 percent fruit loss. Some growers are below that. Some are above that, obviously.”

Florida Citrus Mutual represents 3,800 growers of oranges, grapefruit, tangerines and other fruit who harvest about 475,000 acres.

John S. Hundley, of Hundley Farms east of Belle Glade, said sugarcane and rice crops will be affected. The farm had no vegetables planted yet.

Barbara Miedema, spokeswoman for the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida in Belle Glade, said: “We experienced minor damage at our site. Our main concern has been the safety of our people.”

While sugarcane is flattened in some fields, and leaves are shredded, it’s too soon to predict the extent of the damage, Miedema said. The Cooperative and others are working together to get food and ice to those in need in western Palm Beach County’s Glades farming region.

Eva Webb, assistant director of field for the services Florida Farm Bureau Federation, has been visiting Palm Beach County farms and nurseries since Irma left.

Raised beds that are covered in black plastic were ready for planting, but now those beds, one of the biggest expenses growers have, must be rebuilt, Webb said.

Farmers said Thursday that without irrigation they cannot redo the beds, and they also are concerned about workers’ safety due to close to a dozen power poles that were toppled.

Webb said there’s concern that farmers might not plant because they lost money last season due to a glut of produce and cheap imports from Mexico.

At Mulvehill Nursery, in business since 1976 on 40 acres west of Delray Beach, workers were trying to stand up as many of the half million plants blown over as they could, owner Joe Mulvehil said.

“The storm took out 8 acres of shade houses. The plants that don’t have shade, the indoor plants, will all get sunburn,” Mulvehill said.

The shade houses collapsed onto the sprinklers, ruining those as well.

“I don’t know if tornadoes went through. A couple of my structures did not get any damage. I have 18 acres of shade houses, and eight were damaged,” Mulvehill said.

Lisa Lochridge, spokeswoman for the Maitland-based Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, said fields prepared for planting were damaged in South and Central Florida. Tomato and strawberry fields are among those where the storm ripped up plastic ground covering and irrigation systems.

“Fields are flooded as well,” Lochridge said. “As a result, the tomato crop is expected to be light at the first part of November, but volume should build and we expect a solid December. Strawberry growers expect to be able to recover quickly and stay on their timetable to be harvesting on time.

“A big concern for growers is finding available workers to help them in their recovery efforts. The labor supply was already very tight, so this is also an issue they’re dealing with,” Lochridge said.

Standing water is a challenge for producers throughout the entire peninsula, the Florida Farm Bureau Federation said. Flooding has blocked access to fields and groves and limited access to beef cattle in pastures marooned by the storm. In Brevard County, for example, an estimated 50,000 acres of ranch land are under water, likely imposing a weight loss in calves shipped for processing.

As far north as Putnam County, west of St. Augustine, vegetable growers cannot enter fields because there is no access. Blueberry producers from south-central Florida north to Gainesville are struggling with acreage that has turned into lakes or muddy bogs.

The Florida Nursery, Growers & Landscape Association said losses of plants and structures are statewide.

“It’s way too early to tally the losses, yet we know most of the state’s nursery and greenhouse crop growers are impacted,” association CEO Ben Bolusky said. “Almost all have lost some and some have lost all.”

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