Florida’s agriculture industry has been resilient over the years. That resiliency will be tested again in the coming weeks and months, even years, as the industry works to recover from the latest setback.
Hurricane Irma hit Florida last month resulting in the loss of $2.5 billion to agriculture and officials say that is likely just the beginning.
“The losses are staggering,” Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam told members of the Senate Agriculture Committee Thursday morning. “This is more than just damage contained to one crop year. The economic losses will extend into future out years in a very negative way.”
The biggest impact was felt by citrus farmers who sustained an estimated $760 million dollars in losses.
Irma hit just weeks before this year’s citrus crop was to be harvested. Her winds and rains ripped fruit from the trees and left citrus groves flooded.
After years of declining yields, growers were expecting a rebound in this year’s harvest.
Now, they are facing the reality that this year’s crop could be the lowest in 75 years.
Growers had expected to produce 68.7 million to 75 million 90-pound boxes of citrus this year.
The U.S. Departments of Agriculture’s released its first citrus forecast for this year’s crop on Thursday. It estimates 54 million boxes of oranges for the 2017-2018 season.
“They were weeks away from harvest,” Putnam said. “So you have 98 percent of your annual expense already out the door. You have invested all of your expenses into a crop that now you will not pick.”
Putnam is concerned that the first crop estimate for the season may not provide an accurate estimate of damage. He fears the forecast could be too high and not take into account that damage is still occurring as citrus continues to fall from the trees.
Some estimates have placed this year’s crop as low as 31 million boxes.
Putnam and Gov. Rick Scott were in in Washington, D.C., Wednesday to meet with the state’s congressional delegation to seek help for Florida’s farmers and growers. The agriculture commissioner hopes funding will be included in FEMA’s disaster relief bill that will be voted on by the House on Thursday and the Senate next week. He’s concerned relief for agriculture won’t be provided until Congress adopts another relief bill, which may not come until the end of the year.
In many groves, much of the citrus crop that once gave growers hope for the future now lies on the ground. Groves are covered by so much fruit that it makes it difficult to walk. There is a stench caused by the rotting citrus.
Putnam says Irma’s path across the Keys and up the state’s west coast could not have been “more lethal” to Florida agriculture. She inflicted damage to the lobster and stone crab industries in the Keys, as well as to the vegetable crop, sugar cane, nurseries, the cattle and dairy farmers and the poinsettia industry.
“The damage caused to Florida agriculture is still unfolding,” said Putnam. “Here we are a month out from landfall of Hurricane Irma, but the disaster that it has caused is still unfolding in the fields, the groves and the farms of Florida.”
Putnam says the unfolding disaster will mean higher prices at the grocery store this winter.
“I would expect prices to rise as the result of the winter vegetable capital of America being put out of production going into the holiday season,” he said.
Putnam has personally been affected by the damage. He is from a ranching and citrus family. He estimates his family has lost about half of its citrus crop.
He calls it a “double kick to the gut.”
“We had better crop, better crop size, more crop on the tree than I’ve seen in years. It was finally a crop to be proud of and now it’s laying on the ground.”
Despite the losses, Putnam says with the strong will of Florida’s agriculture community, there is reason for hope.
“All hope has not been lost. There is no more persistent, stubborn, hardworking group of men and women on the planet than Florida farmers and ranchers.”