Citrus crop losses from Ian expected to top 80 percent in some areas

Paul Nutcher

The Ledger


In addition to the widespread destruction Hurricane Ian left in its wake, the devastating effects of wind and rain also wreaked havoc on Florida's citrus industry.

Ray Royce, executive director of the Highlands Citrus Growers Association, has heard from more than a dozen citrus growers across the citrus growing region who are reporting between 15% to 80% of their fruit has falling. In some pockets, those losses could be even higher as flood waters are stubborn to return to lakes and streams and threaten to kill trees.   

The groves hit hardest by hurricane Ian appear to be in southern Polk, Charlotte, DeSoto, Hardee, Highlands and Manatee counties, he said based on his communications with growers over the weekend. 

“I think what is important to say about the citrus is that damage will continue to show itself for months and years,” Royce said. “We’ve seen a lot of fruit hit the ground in recent days and more will hit the ground in the coming week and the stress on those trees will be felt for years.”  

In terms of flooding, the east side of the storm was pretty much dry especially along the Highland Ridge, Royce said.  

“But when you get into western Highlands County and Hardee and DeSoto counties, there is tremendous flooding in the Myakka River Valley,” he said. “It is my understanding a lot of groves in that area have been in deep water for five or six days now.”

Assessing the damage

Matt Joyner, executive vice president and CEO of Citrus Mutual in Bartow said the winds in southern Polk County resulted in a 20% to 50% fruit drop. However, standing water is having a major impact in groves across Florida and it was too deep or dangerous for some growers to access their groves to perform damage assessments, especially in the orchards beyond the banks of the Arcadia River and elsewhere. 

“This has been as much of a water event as it has been a wind event,” Joyner said.

He added orange trees can sustain damage after being submerged in flood waters for more than 72 hours as some are experiencing beyond the banks of the Peace River.  

“We just have a lot of growers in DeSoto County that cannot get out to assess damages because you have so much standing water, roads closed, roads washed out, culverts washed out; and so along with a wind event, it is a tremendous water event that is causing a lot of problems for the industry,” he said.  “The real long-term consequences we will not know for weeks.”

The Arcadia area, and DeSoto and Charlotte counties bore the brunt of inland winds with sustained wind speeds reportedly at 120 mph with gusts even higher. He said in this area the groves may have lost more than 80% of their fruit and this is a pocket with many growers reporting uprooted trees.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, a staunch supporter of the state's citrus industry said in a Sept. 28 interview with CNN's Jake Tapper the citrus industry in Florida is already teetering on the brink because of citrus greening.

"If they lose this year's crop and a bunch of trees, you can't just restart that," he told Tapper. "It takes time ... So it's going to be a big hit for them."  

Various agricultural areas hit hard

Citrus crops were not the only damaged commodity. There are flooded cow pastures along the Arbuckle Creek area flowing from Polk County and feeding Lake Istokpoga further south, Royce said. Uprooted oak trees have smashed fences along pastures leaving cattle to stray and some cattle in flood waters that cannot be reached until waters recede. 

At least one produce grower reported his winter watermelon plants were thrashed about in the wind and plastic along the row crop torn asunder in Highlands County, Royce said.  

Further south, Gene McAvoy, agricultural consultant and retired University of Florida researcher, said the damage due to Ian was different than Hurricane Irma but damage was widespread.  

“The fruit is all over the place in southwest Florida in Hendry, Glades and Collier,” said McAvoy, who has 50 years of experience in farming. He said vegetables fared well compared to Hurricane Irma which stripped the fields of plastic coverings and plants. Most of the plastic stayed down in southwest Florida this time. 

“We had sandblasting, and some plants will have to be replanted,” McAvoy said. “It will impact yields in the long run and increase cost because growers will have to spray more fungicides and things like that because these plants are now more susceptible to disease because they are injured. But not a catastrophic loss like we saw in Irma.”  

McAvoy said standing water was not seen at the same levels in the southwest agricultural region because four to five inches of rain fell compared to more than a foot or more of rain in areas further north.  

“We didn’t have the extensive flooding,” he said, adding the rainfall in the southwest was manageable with pumps where he has inspected. 

Meanwhile in Southwest Florida

As he stood in a citrus grove Monday in Lee County, McAvoy observed between 10% to 20% of groves suffered tree damage and there was between 30% to 70% of fruit drop.  

The varieties of oranges closer to ripening suffered the most losses. The Hamlin oranges typically harvested early in the growing season took the worst hit, with Valencia oranges remaining attached to their stems at higher percentages, he said. 

In the Glades region, sugar cane in Hendry County was blown at an angle, McAvoy said. That crop can straighten up to a certain degree as it grows, but a percentage of leaning stalks will be lost because it will be missed by the harvester.  

About 50% of sensitive crops such as green beans that cannot take a lot of wind and water will need to be replanted, McAvoy said. In growing areas such as Pine Island off the coast of Lee County, which was covered by the salty storm surge, mango and tropical fruit growers were devastated and potentially wiped out for decades as the soil will take years of rain water to flush out the salt and once again support agriculture. 

Strawberries spared, other crops not so much

In Hillsborough County-based Wish Farms, the fourth-generation strawberry farmers also felt impacts but considered their fate mild compared to other agricultural businesses statewide.

“Our situation pales in comparison to other folks,” said Nick Wishnatzki, the grower's public relations manager said in a statement. “Our strawberry farm (G&D Farms) in Duette, Manatee County, sustained some damage from the wind and rain from Hurricane Ian.”  

“Fortunately, we held off planting as we were waiting to see Ian’s path,” the statement went on. “Around 10-15% of the plastic beds were ripped up, a few fields were completely submerged under water, and dirt was blown into the fields changing some of the grading."  

"Power was knocked out, but it got restored Saturday morning," Duette said. "There will be additional costs to get back on track, but we don’t foresee any significant delay to the Florida season getting underway in November."  

According to UF’s Institute for Food and Agriculture Science, the agriculture industry in Florida produces over 300 commodities from livestock and aquaculture to fruit and vegetable crops.

The seasonal crops currently in the ground include over 200,000 acres of fresh market vegetables, like cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes, over 180,000 acres of hay and 95,000 acres of field crops, like sugarcane, cotton and peanuts, officials with UF/IFAS said. Most of the land – over 3 million acres – is grazing land with livestock like beef and dairy cattle roam at least 70,000 of those acres. 

“It so happens, that Hurricane Ian’s arrival coincides with the usual timeframe for plantings of most crops in the region," said Christa Court, UF economist and director of the UF/IFAS Economic Impact Analysis Program. "The crops in harvest now include avocado, oranges, grapefruit, carambola, corn, peanuts and sweet potatoes.” 

Post-storm assessment surveys will be completed online or via paper by local Florida cooperative extension agents or producers themselves to capture impacts to production and sales revenues.   

“After the storm passes, assessing the damages might not be a quick process, depending on power and telecommunication outages, limited access to farms and ranches due to flooding, and other challenges,” Court said. “Other effects might only appear in the long-term, including problems like soil salinity affected by storm surge along the coast.”

“The point is that each commodity, each farm, sees different impacts, even in the same area during the same weather event," she added. "It is our goal to capture as much information as we can, and that the information we collect can assist in their recovery and preparations for the next event.” 

Paul Nutcher can be reached at pnutcher@gannett.com.


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