Of­fi­cial: Irma ‘lethal’ for Flor­ida cit­rus, other crops

The Reporter (Lansdale, PA) - - NEWS - By Bren­dan Far­ring­ton

TAL­LA­HAS­SEE, FLA. » Flor­ida’s fa­mous or­anges are still fall­ing from trees and rot­ting on the ground weeks af­ter Hur­ri­cane Irma, and the state’s agri­cul­ture com­mis­sioner said Thurs­day there will be fewer Flor­ida veg­eta­bles on Thanks­giv­ing ta­bles and a short­age of poin­set­tias at Christ­mas.

Agri­cul­ture Com­mis­sioner Adam Put­nam and Flor­ida farm­ers up­dated the state Sen­ate Agri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee that the storm dam­aged crops of all kinds, with losses top­ping $2.5 bil­lion. Losses are re­ported to peanuts, av­o­ca­does, sugar, straw­ber­ries, cotton and toma­toes. The storm also af­fected tim­ber, milk pro­duc­tion and lob­ster and stone crab fish­ing.

“The fresh win­ter veg­eta­bles that are on peo­ple’s Thanks­giv­ing ta­bles won’t be there this year be­cause of Hur­ri­cane Irma,” Put­nam said. “The losses are stag­ger­ing; in many cases, the tale of those losses will be mul­ti­ple years ... This is more than just dam­age con­tained in just one crop year.”

He said Irma’s path couldn’t have been “more lethal” for Flor­ida agri­cul­ture, with few crops spared. The cit­rus in­dus­try was par­tic­u­larly hard hit, with some es­ti­mates of more than half the or­ange crop lost.

The U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture re­leased its Flor­ida cit­rus fore­cast Thurs­day, es­ti­mat­ing that Flor­ida will pro­duce 54 mil­lion boxes of or­anges, down 21 per­cent from last year.

But the Flor­ida Cit­rus Mu­tual said the fed­eral govern­ment should have de­layed the fore­cast be­cause it’s still too early to tell just how hard hit the in­dus­try was af­ter the storm. It said pro­duc­tion would be closer to 31 mil­lion boxes of or­anges, or a 55 per­cent drop from the 68.7 mil­lion boxes pro­duced in the 2016-2017 sea­son.

“Irma hit us just a month ago and although we re­spect the skill and pro­fes­sion­al­ism of the USDA, there is no way they can put out a re­li­able num­ber in that short time pe­riod,” said Michael W. Sparks, CEO of the Flor­ida Cit­rus Mu­tual.

The agri­cul­tural losses are ex­pected to af­fect con­sumers, but how much so is still to be de­ter­mined.

“I would ex­pect prices to rise as a re­sult of the win­ter veg­etable cap­i­tal of Amer­ica be­ing put out of the pro­duc­tion go­ing into the hol­i­day sea­son,” Put­nam said, but he added that there could be a flood of for­eign fruit and pro­duce en­ter­ing the mar­ket that could keep prices from ris­ing — some­thing he said could fur­ther hurt farm­ers.

“That could, over time, re­place mar­ket share that should be go­ing to Flor­ida’s farm­ers,” he said.

Com­mit­tee Chair­woman Sen. Denise Grim­s­ley talked about the dam­age she’s seen in her fam­ily’s or­ange groves.

“The fruit on the ground was so thick it was hard to walk through, and the smell is now bad be­cause of the rot­ting fruit,” she said.

Put­nam’s fam­ily also farms or­ange groves. He told re­porters they’ve lost about half the crop.

“It’s not good,” he said. “You can stand in the grove and con­tinue to hear fruit fall. It’s a dou­ble kick in the gut be­cause this was the best crop we’ve set in years. We had bet­ter crop, bet­ter crop size, more fruit on the trees than I’ve seen in years. It was fi­nally a crop to be proud of and now it’s lay­ing on the ground.”

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