Florida questions whether USDA estimate captures extent of Irma damage

October 12, 2017 03:49 PM
 
Florida Irma Damage

For video from Florida of damage to groves and interviews with growers, see The Packer's earlier coverage here.

The latest crop estimate by the U.S. Department of Agriculture paints a rosier picture for Florida citrus than many believe is warranted in the wake of Hurricane Irma.

The department has projected 54 million boxes of oranges, down 21% from last season, and 4.9 million boxes of grapefruit, down 37%.

“I am concerned that today’s forecast does not accurately estimate the damages to our industry, given that groves are still under water and fruit is still dropping from trees,” Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam said in a news release. “It’s important to recognize that the damage to Florida citrus is still unfolding and will continue to for some time.”

Quentin Roe, president of Winter Haven, Fla.-based Wm. G. Roe & Sons, also noted that the USDA estimate was quite different from what his company is experiencing and from what he is hearing from others in the industry.

Roe said the general consensus among orange growers is that 50-60% of the crop is lost, which would put the total closer to 35 million or 40 million boxes of oranges.

Dave Brocksmith, Florida citrus category manager for Vero Beach, Fla.-based Seald Sweet International, agreed with that projection.

Since the USDA takes months to develop its projections, Brocksmith said, it did not make sense for the department to try and revise them in such a short time after Irma hit. Brocksmith believed the USDA should have postponed its report to November.

Michael Sparks, executive vice president and CEO for Florida Citrus Mutual, expressed the same opinion.

“I’m disappointed the USDA did not delay the traditional October crop estimate until more data could be collected to fully assess the damage wrought by Irma,” Sparks said in a news release. “Irma hit us just a month ago, and although we respect the skill and professionalism of the USDA, there is no way they can put out a reliable number in that short time period.”

Shannon Shepp, executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus, also expressed some doubt about the estimate.

“Our growers would love to see these numbers materialize,” Shepp said in a news release. “Unfortunately, what they are seeing in real life doesn’t show such promise.”

Florida Citrus Mutual said in its release that a survey of its growers indicates the orange crop could be more like 31 million boxes.

Even if the figure of 54 million boxes is correct, Roe said the storm has still been a “horrific hit” to the industry.

Roe said fruit continues to fall, noting that his company has observed another 10-15% of fruit on the ground within the last week or 10 days.

Smaller fruit tended to fare better, Roe said, so losses of later tangerines were much lower than their earlier counterparts.

“Grapefruit guys just got killed,” Roe said.

Brocksmith said Seald Sweet is estimating it lost 70-80% of its grapefruit and 20-30% of its oranges.

Along with the damage to the current crop, growers are worried about next season as well.

Roe said that because the trees lost so many leaves, they may put their energy into growing leaves instead of growing fruit, meaning a very small crop this year could be followed by a very small crop next year.

“We don’t know where we are in that continuum,” Roe said. “It’s a heck of a crapshoot right now.”

Brocksmith said some trees may die because of how long they spent under water in flooded groves, a concern Sparks also voiced.

“The long-term effect of Irma on our industry will take years to sort out,” Sparks said in the release. “We had groves under water, and those trees aren’t just going to bounce back and continue producing fruit. They are gone.

“Just like when the hurricanes hit in 2004-2005 and dramatically reshaped our industry, Irma was a historic event that dealt Florida citrus a major blow,” Sparks said.

Growers are also concerned about trees being more susceptible to citrus greening disease because the insect that spreads it, the Asian citrus psyllid, likes the new tender shoots that the trees produce as they try to recover.

Spraying to try to ward off the psyllid is another big additional cost for growers.

Putnam has been advocating for the federal government to step in and assist the citrus industry.

“Florida’s growers need support and they need it fast,” Putnam said in the release. “I will continue to work with leaders in Washington to get Florida’s growers the support and relief they need to rebuild as quickly as possible. There is no group of people more stubborn or more resilient than Florida’s growers, and we will get through this together.”

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has estimated industry losses of $760 million.

Citrus elsewhere

The USDA projects that California will have 46 million boxes of oranges, with 35 million boxes of early, midseason and navel varieties and 11 million of valencia.

Texas is expected to produce 1.65 million boxes of oranges, the vast majority of which are early, midseason and navel varieties.

The USDA estimates California will have 4.2 million boxes of grapefruit, and Texas is expected to have 5.3 million boxes.

California is projected to produce 23 million boxes of tangerines and mandarins, while the estimate for Florida is 1 million.

The USDA estimates California will have 21 million boxes of lemons, and Arizona will add 1.6 million boxes.

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