The Plan for Recovery, Post Hurricane Irma


Grove Owners Take in the Damage and Map Out a Strategy for Bringing Fields
Back to Full Health

It was supposed to be a good year for Florida’s citrus growers. With post bloom
fruit drop under control, some growers were expecting a rebound— despite the dreaded
citrus greening disease. But then came Hurricane Irma, wreaking hundreds of millions of
dollars of havoc across the Sunshine State.
“Growers are frustrated [. . .] the fruit looked good and it was sizing up. So the
hurricane really hit us at a bad time,” says Andrew Meadows, director of
Communications for Florida Citrus Mutual (FCM), the Lakeland-based growers’
cooperative. “We definitely need a federal hurricane relief package to get growers and
the industry back on its feet.”
According to a survey conducted after the storm by FCM, the estimated statewide
fruit loss is in excess of 50- to 60-percent, with reports of southwest Florida sustaining as
much as 100 percent fruit loss.
“Having a hurricane at this point was, to say the least, disheartening,” adds Chris
Oswalt, University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS)
commercial citrus extension agent in Polk and Hillsborough counties. “Disaster funding
would be of great benefit to Florida citrus growers [. . .] Without any assistance, growers
might face tough decisions, such as reducing inputs that may reduce yields in the future.
This continuous yield reduction is something we have been trying to avoid.”
Still, growers are determined to turn this around. “We can grow an abundant crop
in the face of so many invasive pests and disease,” says Kyle Story, vice president of The
Story Companies in Lake Wales. “We can get there again.”
People were reporting trees toppled, flooding, and fruit drop, although the
devastation is widespread, not all is lost. “It looks like the trees are trying to recover,”
says Tommy Thayer, a Dundee citrus grower and nurseryman, who owns Southern Citrus
Nurseries. “They’re actually laying over with this heavy crop.”
“I got hammered like everybody else,” says Bob Stallings, an Alturas area citrus
grower who owns Stallings Crop Insurance in Lakeland. “I’ve had the best crop that I’ve
had in five years.” Now he plans to use a line of credit at the bank until he can sell his
fruit and get his insurance money. “We as growers may have to beg the bank a little,” he
predicts.

Not everyone was insured. “We don’t purchase crop insurance. We don’t feel it’s
worth the cost,” says John Barben, who owns and manages groves in Polk, Highlands,
Hardee, and DeSoto counties. If he’d had it, crop insurance wouldn’t have “kicked in”
on some of those groves, he says.
The Florida Citrus Emergency Loan Program had $25 million available to farmers
as bridge, interest-free loans. Growers were eligible for up to $150,000 if they
established in any of Florida’s 67 counties before Sept. 4, 2017 and could show they
suffered economic injury or physical damage resulting from Irma. To apply, growers
should visit floridadisasterloan.org and complete the form by November 30. The
program is managed by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.
“The Florida Citrus Emergency Loan Program will be a valuable resource for
affected business owners,” said Florida Gov. Rick Scott, in an official announcement.
“I’ve also spoken to Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and United States
Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, and we’ll continue to partner to find more ways
to help this vital industry recover.”
Florida Citrus Mutual was working to obtain federal aid for the industry with an
economic impact of $8.6 billion annually. “There is no question our request will be
substantial and will require a “heavy lift” in Washington D.C.,” the organization
conveyed in an e-mail to its membership.
Even if growers can ride through the harvest, they may face a funding gap come
January or February when they need financing for next year’s crop.
The industry, which employs 46,000, has been battling citrus greening since it
was discovered in South Florida 12 years ago. Growers have been diversifying,
experimenting with more greening-tolerant varieties, beefing up nutrition, and in some
cases even growing citrus under cover.
Steve Callaham, executive vice president and chief executive officer for the
Dundee Citrus Growers Association, reports the association’s new agricultural
subdivision under cover is expected to be in use by growers in fall 2018. “We’re still
accessing the extent of the damage. I don’t think the hurricane spared anything,” he says.
As growers recover, it’s an opportunity to replant with the newer varieties,
advises Dr. Michael Rogers, director of UF/IFAS Citrus Research and Education Center
in Lake Alfred. “There’s new plant material that just wasn’t available in the past. It’s
not the ultimate answer,” he continues, but “they seem to hold up better.”
Damage at CREC was minimal and research to find a solution to greening
continues. “Most of our structures here faired very well,” he reports. “Our biggest
problem was losing power for a number of days.” Generators were used.
Farther south growers fared worse. Mongi Zekri, a UF/IFAS citrus extension
agent in Charlotte, Glades, Lee, Hendry, and Collier counties, says they may produce far
less than last year. “We were thinking that last season’s crop was maybe the bottom,” he
explains, adding they had been expecting a 20- to 30-percent increase.
Fruit loss was between 40 and 80 percent. Five to 30 percent of the trees were
uprooted. “Some of the groves were flooded for more than a week,” he adds.
That means more trouble in the future. “I am afraid some growers may quit,” he
adds. “Most of the growers will continue and hopefully they will get help from the
federal government.”

In Highlands County, Laurie Hurner, UF/IFAS citrus extension agent, reports 50
to 65 percent of the citrus was on the ground. They experienced a little flooding and
twisting at the treetops. “We must have had tornadoes,” she states.
“Growers in Highlands County are really trying to keep their heads up and [. . .]
be supportive,” she continues. “I can’t say we’re flying high, but everybody has dug in.”
They’re trying to find the silver lining. “We still have trees and they still have the ability
to grow,” Hurner maintains. “We’re not happy about it. I have not heard of anybody
deciding to go out of business.”
While the extent of the damage remains to be seen, it is expected to span multiple
years. “We expect a significantly smaller crop because there was catastrophic damage
across the industry,” Andrews says. “Certainly, the effects of Irma will stretch far into
the future.”
Greening makes it harder to gauge how trees will handle the added stress. “If
defoliated trees have the reserves and ability to push out a new flush soon, then there
could be some reason to believe that some of that flush could be mature enough to have
flower buds next spring,” Oswalt elaborates. “But only time will tell.”
In the meantime, it’s back to business, and for many growers, that means planting
resets. Trees that have flushed since the hurricane, need attention to protect them from
the Asian psyllid that spreads greening. “That flush is just covered up from psyllid. We’re
hearing that from everybody,” Barben says. “People that are concerned with psyllid and
infection; they’re trying to get out there to spray them.”
“Stay the course with what we have been doing,” Oswalt advises. “Continue to
use production practices that encourage root, vegetative, and fruit growth while reducing
overall citrus tree stress.”

CREDIT: CHERYL ROGERS
Portrait Photo by LUIS BETANCOURT