The damage of Hurricane Irma to Florida’s agricultural industry was devastating, with damage inflicted on every part of the state. Mike Aerts, director of production and supply chain management at Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, says that the damage is still being assessed, but the citrus industry seems most affected.
Most of the citrus crop was about two months or less from the beginning of harvest when the hurricane swept through the state bringing torrential rain and wind, meaning that all of the early and mid-season oranges were knocked from the trees and cannot be used. Those that did not drop during the storm are primarily on trees that were underwater after the storm passed through. Water needs to be pumped from the fields, but accomplishing that task takes time when there is no place for the water to go, he says.
According to the Florida Department of Citrus, the industry had been expecting more than 75 million boxes worth of oranges on trees this season, but now those expectations have been sharply curtailed. Orange trees suffered fruit loss due to wind, and some growers also are dealing with uprooted trees.
The grapefruit crops also suffered significant damage. In a video posted on the Florida Department of Citrus website, grapefruit grower Ellis Hunt of Central Florida surveys the damage to a 200-acre grapefruit orchard. About 90 percent of the fruit was on the ground following the hurricane, with little possibility of salvage.
“When you hear and smell the stagnant water, it’s much more impactful than this video can show,” Hunt says. “It is basically heartbreaking. As far as the eye can see, it’s on the ground, in the water, in 90-plus degree heat. There’s no one here that can pick it up. By the time we get our H-2A [temporary agricultural] workers, it may be too late.”
Reports from throughout the state about the vegetable industry have ranged from “minimal loss to extreme loss,” Aerts says. Some farmers had not yet begun planting their crops of sweet corn and leafy vegetables, such as in the Everglades area. However, their fields remained underwater, delaying the planting season for the crops typically available for market during the Thanksgiving season.
Farmers in the Fort Myers/Naples region on the west coast of the state had already placed the transplants in the ground and covered them with plastic. The plastic was ripped apart and the young tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and other crops drowned, he says. In addition, greenhouses that supply growers with seedlings were also destroyed or impacted by the storm, further delaying the autumn growing season. Growers may have to find alternate sources to plant new crops.