Florida’s agriculture commissioner said Monday that the path of Hurricane Irma “could not have been more lethal” to the state’s farmers and that the scope of damage to the state’s fruits and vegetables is unprecedented.
Florida crops took between 80 and 90 percent losses in parts of the state after Hurricane Irma flattened greenhouses, toppled trees and flooded pastures as it tore through the state’s most fruitful regions, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said Monday.
Shoppers should expect some temporary spikes in the price of certain items at the grocery store, such as orange juice and tomatoes, said Ron Rice, director of the University of Florida/ Palm Beach County extension office.
But while orange juice could “get expensive,” overall food bills will likely only rise slightly, he said.
Putnam warned that the damage means Florida vegetables wouldn’t be feasted on during Thanksgiving meals this year, as farmers are scrambling to get crops replanted in hopes for a December harvest.
“The path of Irma could not have been more poorly chosen to more effectively destroy our agricultural crops,” Putnam said. “…If that window closes, it may be filled by foreign competition — Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras, and they’ll be out of luck for the whole year.”
Damage to Palm Beach County crops will likely be in the millions of dollars, and it could take weeks to fully assess the damage, Rice said
Farmers lost about half of their rice crop scheduled to be harvested this month and the next, he said. About 30 percent of nurseries suffered damage. Sugar cane growers will see some losses because of wind damage to their crops.
Among the hardest hit crops: avocados and ornamental plants in Miami-Dade County, along with field crops such as eggplants, tomatoes and bell peppers.
The storm would have been worse for Palm Beach County if it had come a few weeks later because it would have devastated recently planted vegetable crops and sugar cane fields, Rice said.
Putnam, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and U.S. Rep. Thomas Rooney viewed the damage aboard a pair of Florida Forest Service Huey helicopters Monday. They hovered over the devastation in Highlands County, LaBelle and Immokalee before they landed in Clewiston to meet with farmers and ranchers, Putnam said, and then flew back to Orlando to speak with reporters.
No dollar figures were given. The helicopter tour was meant to give Perdue a scope of the hit to the state’s second largest industry after tourism, which state officials say generated $4 billion in 2015.
Putnam said the citrus crop in southwest Florida is particularly devastated.
The scope of the damage is more evident this week because the dropped fruit is starting to turn from green to orange, leaving piles of ruined juice oranges in the groves. Putnam added that some groves are still underwater, which will likely kill the trees.
“There are a number of old timers who have seen a lot of freezes and fires and floods, and the consensus of the growers is that this is the state’s most significant crop loss ever,” Putnam said.
Florida is the nation’s largest juice producer. The citrus industry was already battling a deadly disease when Irma hit. Some citrus producers in Southwest Florida say they’ve lost 80-90 percent of their crop, while producers elsewhere say 40 percent was ruined by the storm.
“Irma was an agriculture catastrophe,” Rubio said. “The vast majority of the folks that have been hurt by this storm in this industry are not wealthy, big corporations. A lot of them are generational growers, some of whom may never recover from this without significant assistance.”
Other crops were also destroyed. Lisa Lochridge, a spokeswoman for the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, said last week that reports indicate a 50 percent to 70 percent crop loss in South Florida.
Florida is a key source of fresh fruits and vegetables for the nation in the winter.
In addition to farmers, people who pick crops, drive produce trucks and process the crops will all feel the downturn.
“This is a major calamity,” said Putnam.
Agriculture, fishing and horticulture contribute $150 billion dollars to the state’s economy.