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Southeast agriculture takes a blow from hurrican Irma

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — A Florida industry already struggling from the effects of citrus greening disease took another major blow when Hurricane Irma traveled up the entire length of the state Sept. 9-10.

Other crops were damaged, including pecans, peanuts, cotton and blueberries in Georgia; fall crops such as tomatoes, green beans, cucumbers and squash in Florida, along with strawberries, blueberries and peanuts; and cotton and soybeans in parts of Georgia and Tennessee.

It will take time to determine the scope of losses from Irma’s destructive path through Florida and northward, but the costs will be high. The nation’s consumers also can expect some higher prices for orange juice now and other crops through the winter.

“Like many other Floridians, farm families were contending with significant failures in the electric power grid,” the state’s Farm Bureau said in a statement four days after Irma hit the U.S. mainland. By the end of last week, estimates were that 80 percent of the state’s affected customers had electricity again.

The entire Florida peninsula suffered major damage, the most severe being the primary Citrus Belt. The long-term consequence for growers depends on the type of damage.

“Around Immokalee and LaBelle, 50 percent to 60 percent of the fruit has been blown off the trees and is floating in flood waters,” said Gene McAvoy, University of Florida extension director for Hendry County.

That matches the observation of Joel Rivera, a fruit worker for Alico, Inc., the nation’s largest citrus producer, who works near Frostproof, Fla. “One tree is down here, one is flooded there, but the hurricane took a lot of fruit off these trees,” he told Bloomberg last week.

Those will be one-season losses. For those who lost trees to Irma’s high winds, the pain will last longer; a newly planted orange tree can take seven years to produce a sizable crop and it takes three years for new tree to produce fruit and seven years before it’s delivering a normal load.

Pecan trees, with shallow roots and heavy branches, also were felled in large numbers by tropical storm Irma’s 50-75 mph winds.

Irma’s timing could have been worse. Many peanuts had been dug from the ground by the time it hit, and will likely be used; those underground and under floodwater may not be salvageable.

In areas, some fall vegetables were only 20 percent planted, while other growers were further along and will take a bigger hit.

“Many of the areas that are in the process of planting fall crops (tomato, strawberries and the like) will be impacted due to high water and very wet soils that will impact the bedding process,” wrote Steve Futch, a regional citrus agent for the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

The state’s two U.S. senators, Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio, included a Lake Wales orange grove in their tour of Florida’s devastation. “There’s always the danger that – in the mix of all the disaster and catastrophic loss we’re seeing in the Keys, which we really need to focus on, and other parts of the state – agriculture gets lost in the mix,” Rubio said.

“A farm disaster of this magnitude requires exceptional action,” said Florida Farm Bureau President John Hoblick. “I urge the Congress and the administration to endorse immediate financial support for Florida agriculture.”

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said last week the USDA is putting procedures into place to assist farmers who lost crops and livestock – or took other damage to their farms – during hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

“The impact is shocking and will be felt for many months,” he explained. “In addition to efforts being made on the ground to assist producers, we have taken a hard look at our regular reporting requirements and adjusted them so producers can take care of pressing needs first and mostly deal with documentation and claims later."

Perdue witnessed damage to several farm areas of Florida on Monday after visiting pecan and cotton operations in Georgia on Friday. He plans to be in Texas later this week to meet with producers and ranchers hurt by Hurricane Harvey earlier this month.