Hurricane Irma is threatening to wreak havoc on Florida farmlands, threatening $1.2 billion worth of production in the top U.S. grower of fresh tomatoes, oranges, green beans, cucumbers, squash and sugarcane.
Though its economy long ago diversified from its rural roots, Florida still has a huge influence on American grocery stores as the No. 2 U.S. produce grower, trailing only California. The state accounts for almost 10 percent of the nation’s land dedicated to fresh fruits and vegetables, according to government data. The storm threat has pushed orange-juice futures and domestic-sugar prices higher this week.
For farmers such as Andy McDonald, who grows strawberries near Plant City, Florida, there’s only so much that can be done to prepare for the damage. His fields are ready for planting his winter crop next week. But if punishing rains and overpowering winds tear away the sheeting already laid down over 500 acres that protects the plants from pests in the fall and keeps them warm in the winter, "we won’t have a crop," he said. The custom-made cover takes months to manufacture, ship, and lay down.
"It’s not something that has a quick turnaround," said McDonald, 40, who’s the manager of Sweet Life Farms. Multiply his situation by the thousands of farmers in Florida, and Irma "will cripple a lot of communities," he said.
Hurricane Irma, which is sweeping through the Caribbean and threatens to become the most expensive storm in U.S. history, could devastate the farm economy of Florida, a state with a unique history as a producer of winter fruits and vegetables given its warmer climate. Damage to croplands could affect U.S. food prices and farmer finances in the months and years to come.
Some markets are already moving. Orange juice futures in New York are trading near their highest level since May, while the benchmark contract for U.S. sugar rose on Wednesday to the highest since July. If Irma tracks further north and moves inland through Georgia or the Carolinas, corn, soybeans, cotton and peanut harvests in that region could be damaged.
In Florida, Irma’s timing offers comfort to at least some growers. For tomatoes, greenhouses nurturing seedlings may be in the storm’s path, but most of the crop isn’t yet in the ground, reducing damage potential, said Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange and a farmer outside Immokalee.
Better Than October
"There’s never a good time for a hurricane, but this is better than late October or November," Brown said.
Oranges may be able to better withstand winds now than later in the season because they’re not yet full-size, and lighter fruit could be spared from being blown off trees, said Dean Mixon, president of Mixon Fruit Farms in Bradenton.
Still, according to Mixon, his family took two years to recover from Hurricane Donna in 1960, the last hurricane to hit their groves. The strong winds and heavy rains knocked down trees and buildings and damaged machinery. Donna’s multiple landfalls were as a Category 3 and Category 4 hurricane. Irma may be a Category 5, indicating greater severity.
"The vast majority of central and southern Florida fruits and vegetables are vulnerable to losses," said Lisa Lochridge, director of public affairs for the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association based in Maitland. "Wind and excessive rain will case major damage."
Once the storm is over, farmers may largely have to draw on their own resources to cover losses. A federal farm bill in 2014 created a disaster program for livestock producers, but use of the main government mechanism to handle crop losses, the federally subsidized crop-insurance program, varies widely depending on what’s planted.
About 300,000 of Florida’s 367,500 acres of oranges are insured this year, according to government data. But only about half of the state’s fresh-market tomatoes are covered, and policies tailored to strawberries simply don’t exist outside of California.
Smaller crops simply don’t have the acreage to support policies, and hurricanes, though devastating, are relatively rare and unpredictable, said John-Walt Boatright, spokesman for the Florida Farm Bureau Federation.
"Insurers don’t know what to expect, and it’s hard for them to charge a premium it makes sense for a farmer to pay," he said.
McDonald, the Plant City strawberry grower, doesn’t have coverage. For the time being, he’s sandbagging his fields, turning sprinklers onto the plastic covers to weigh them down more heavily -- and wondering what happens it if all blows away.
"I can’t plant on bare dirt,” he said. “We’d be done for the season before it ever began.”