Lee Jones, general manager for Gardinier Florida Citrus, looked up the name Irma out of curiosity after the hurricane tore through the area.
“The name Irma means complete, and she lived up to her name,” Jones says. “This is complete destruction here. Total disaster here.”
The early assessment of total damages to ag production in Florida is $2.5 billion. Hurricane Irma inflicted $180 million in damage on non-citrus fruit and vegetable crops across more than 163,000 acres in Florida. Planting season was just underway for most, which will likely result in crop losses caused by shortened seasons, market distortions and lower yields due to the storm diluting recently applied pesticides. That cost is projected at $72 million.
Salt water is estimated to cause more than $30 million in damage to fields. Clean-up costs for fields are projected at $27 million, and lost plastic and drip-tape irrigation will likely be another $40 million.
In terms of citrus production, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services estimates more than 420,000 acres were affected by the storm to the tune of $760 million. Losses range from $2,500 per acre for about 94,000 acres to $1,750 per acre for 254,000 acres and $1,100 per acre for the remaining 72,000 acres.
Along with fruit loss and infrastructure damage, growers are concerned about tree mortality due to flooding.
Citrus growers in southwest Florida estimate they have lost 60% to 70% of their fruit to Hurricane Irma.
Julian Grove, owned by Gardinier Florida Citrus, is among the hardest-hit, with 70% of its trees ripped out of the ground, the roots completely exposed. As one of the most productive groves in the company, it’s likely a total loss, Jones says.
Before Irma, Gardinier expected the crop to be up 30%.
Everglades Harvesting and Hauling, based in LaBelle, which like Gardinier grows citrus for juice, suffered significant tree and fruit loss.
“You could have written a horror story, and it probably would have looked something like this,” says owner Paul Meador.
The company, which spans approximately 2,000 acres, will likely lose about 75% of its fruit and about 22,000 of its trees are beyond saving.
The timing of the storm could hardly be worse for citrus growers.
“This should have been the recovery year for the industry,” Meador says. “We’ve all been replanting heavily, we’ve got some new tools, bactericides, got some nutrient combinations that are really showing a lot of promise.”
Like other growers, Meador notes insurance won’t make up the gap between what growers should have made and what they will now make, not to mention the cleanup costs to get back to normal operation.
“It’s not soybeans and corn where if they have a bad year the compensation almost is equal to the revenue they may have generated,” Meador says. “In our business, a couple good years make up for the prior bad 10 years, so [insurance] never makes you whole again.”
Martin Mason, owner of Tropical Oaks Farm, LaBelle, says some of his trees had branches break off and some were split down the middle. The ones that can be saved, smaller trees not entirely turned over, will need to be lifted up, supported with a brace, then pruned for balance, he says. Additional insect, disease and weed control measures will be necessary.
To top it off, when it comes time to harvest, labor might be a challenge because the lack of fruit means less earning potential for workers.
Hurricane Puts Florida Vegetable Growers Behind Schedule
Hurricane Irma hit when many vegetable plants weren’t yet in the ground, but it still caused a headache for many producers.
At West Coast Tomato farm near LaBelle, wind ripped up more than 500 acres of plastic and flooding covered it with dirt. Then weeds sprouted once the water receded. Tony Jennison, farm production manager for Palmetto-based West Coast Tomato, says the company worked for almost a week to dig up the buried plastic, but the process was taking too long, so the company removed the drip tape and disked the plastic under. That put them 10 days to two weeks behind schedule.
“We had a beautiful farm, all set to plant and roll, and we have to start from scratch—worse than scratch,” Jennison says.
Bobby Williams, owner of BWJ Farms near Immokalee, says flooding killed young plants along with undoing field prep. The hurricane put the company behind about five weeks, Williams estimates, pushing harvest from late October to December.
“We’ve had storms come in and we’ve lost stuff, but usually there’s a little bit left,” Williams says.
Mobley Plant World, LaBelle, lost 19 of the 51 buildings used to grow vegetable transplants. Clean up started immediately after the storm subsided, and by early October, 10 replacement buildings were in the works.