Citrus blues

Irma de­stroys Florida’s or­ange crop, wrecks fruit, groves.

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE -

TAMARA LUSH AND STEVE KARNOWSKI

LAKE WALES, Fla. — Hur­ri­cane Irma dealt Florida’s or­ange crop a dev­as­tat­ing blow, de­stroy­ing nearly all the fruit in some south­west Florida groves and se­ri­ously dam­ag­ing groves in central Florida.

U.S. Sens. Bill Nel­son and Marco Ru­bio toured groves in Lake Wales last week and heard from grow­ers plead­ing for federal as­sis­tance.

In Lake Wales, the sen­a­tors saw young fruit on the ground and trees split by wind. Grow­ers talked of trees stand­ing in 3 feet of wa­ter, which is a death sen­tence for a crop al­ready un­der a decade-long siege by citrus green­ing disease.

“Citrus is the crop that Florida’s as­so­ci­ated with and it’s al­ready fac­ing sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenges,” Ru­bio said. “Eco­nom­i­cally, it’s an enor­mous pri­or­ity for the state. We wanted to make sure this didn’t get lost in this broader re­lief ef­fort.”

Much of the fruit was young, and it’s too late in the sea­son to grow a new crop.

“We’ve had many hur­ri­canes, we’ve had freezes, but this one is wide­spread,” said Harold Brown­ing with the Citrus Re­search and Devel­op­ment Foun­da­tion. “We’re see­ing the kind of dam­age we haven’t seen, ever.”

Statewide, fruit grow­ers and farm­ers have just be­gun to as­sess Irma’s dam­age to the state’s citrus, su­gar cane and veg­etable crops — and they ex­pect it will be sig­nif­i­cant.

With power and com­mu­ni­ca­tions still out across much of Florida, of­fi­cials said get­ting a full pic­ture will take weeks. Still un­known: How much dam­age the crops suf­fered, how much pro­duc­ers might re­cover from crop in­sur­ance and how much more people might pay for their morn­ing or­ange juice.

“Irma went right up the mid­dle. It didn’t mat­ter where you were, be­cause Irma was

so wide,” said Mark Hud­son, the Florida state statis­ti­cian with the Na­tional Agri­cul­tural Statis­tics Ser­vice. Ex­ten­sion and Farm Ser­vice Agency agents have just started eval­u­at­ing the losses, he said, “if they can get fuel and if they can get out.”

Florida’s or­ange har­vest usu­ally be­gins around Thanks­giv­ing, and about 90 per­cent of it be­comes juice. Pro­jec­tions for the 2016-2017 grow­ing sea­son had called for 68.5 mil­lion boxes of oranges and 7.8 mil­lion boxes of grape­fruit. The or­ange crop was worth over $886 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to USDA fig­ures, while the grape­fruit crop was worth nearly $110 mil­lion.

“Be­fore Hur­ri­cane Irma, there was a good chance we would have more than 75 mil­lion boxes of oranges on the trees this sea­son; we now have much less,” said Shan­non Stepp, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Florida De­part­ment of Citrus. Ini­tial reports in­di­cate Irma’s winds knocked a lot of fruit to the ground but up­rooted rel­a­tively few trees, which will spare grow­ers fur­ther grief in the long term — un­less those tree roots sit in wa­ter for a pro­longed pe­riod of time.

Lisa Lochridge, a spokesman for the Florida Fruit and Veg­etable As­so­ci­a­tion, said reports in­di­cate a 50 per­cent to 70 per­cent crop loss in South Florida, depend­ing on the re­gion, with losses “only slightly less go­ing north.” Joel Wi­de­nor, co-founder of Com­mod­ity Weather Group, fore­cast the over­all or­ange crop loss at 10 per­cent and the grape­fruit loss at 20 per­cent to 30 per­cent. He es­ti­mated su­gar cane losses at 10 per­cent.

The su­gar cane har­vest was ex­pected to be­gin Oct. 1. Pro­duc­ers had an­tic­i­pated a “very good” crop of around 2.1 mil­lion tons, said Ryan We­ston, CEO of the Florida Su­gar Cane League. Aerial ob­ser­va­tions should start show­ing how much was knocked down, he said.

Florida is a key source of fresh fruits and veg­eta­bles for the rest of the coun­try in the win­ter. In many cases those crops aren’t in the ground yet, or it’s early enough to re­plant. But par­tic­u­larly for toma­toes and straw­ber­ries, Lochridge said, some fields about to be planted were dam­aged. She said the tomato crop is ex­pected to be light in early Novem­ber, though of­fi­cials ex­pect a solid De­cem­ber. Straw­berry grow­ers ex­pect to re­cover quickly and har­vest on time, she said.

“A big con­cern for grow­ers is find­ing avail­able work­ers to help them in their re­cov­ery ef­forts,” Lochridge said. “The la­bor sup­ply was al­ready very tight.”

The U.S. De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture will is­sue its first fore­cast for Florida’s 2017-18 citrus crop Oct. 12. Citrus green­ing disease, which cuts yields and turns fruit bit­ter, has blighted the crop in past years. The har­vest has fallen by more than 70 per­cent since the disease was dis­cov­ered in Florida in 2005, Lochridge said, and the re­sult­ing higher prices for con­sumers haven’t made up for the losses to grow­ers.

Brown­ing said the hur­ri­cane is like “an ac­cel­er­ant” on top of the dev­as­tat­ing green­ing disease.

Frozen or­ange juice con­cen­trate fu­tures pro­vide a glimpse at what might hap­pen to con­sumer prices. They spiked as Irma bore down but slipped last week. Coca-Cola, whose brands in­clude Minute Maid and Sim­ply juices, said its juice op­er­a­tions are al­ready back up and run­ning.

Chet Townsend is ed­i­tor of the Citrus Daily news­let­ter and also owns a 5-acre grove near Fort De­naud in south­west­ern Florida. He got his first good look at the dam­age driv­ing around his area Tues­day morn­ing.

“I’ve never seen so much fruit down, even after a freeze,” he said.

AP/TAMARA LUSH

An or­ange that sur­vived Hur­ri­cane Irma is pic­tured on a tree last week in Lake Wales, Fla.

AP/TAMARA LUSH

U.S. Sen. Bill Nel­son, D-Fla., (from left) talks with Michael Sparks, CEO of Florida Citrus Mu­tual, an in­dus­try group, and U.S. Sen. Marco Ru­bio, R-Fla., in Lake Wales, Fla., last week.

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