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Hurricane Irma's wrath will mean higher grocery bills

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 9/13/2017 Laura Layden

Southwest Florida's agricultural community is feeling the hurt from Hurricane Irma — and consumers will soon feel their pain at the supermarket.

The storm flooded fields and groves, blew oranges to the ground, twisted protective plastic, broke drip irrigation pipes and tubes, and destroyed vegetable plants. Growers struggled to get water off their fields and groves.

The damage could be felt for some time in supermarkets and on consumers' tables. Fruit and vegetables will be in shorter supply from Southwest Florida and other parts of Florida hit by Irma — and that will translate to higher prices in the grocery aisles for everything from tomatoes to orange juice.

Tears came to Gene McAvoy's eyes Tuesday as he surveyed the region's farms and ranches. He knows the damage could have been much worse if Irma stayed a Category 4 of 5 storm with even higher winds.

McAvoy, a multicounty vegetable agent with the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, has been in Southwest Florida since 1989 and has lived in LaBelle since 1997.

"These are my friends. I've gone to their weddings. I've seen their babies born and gone to their funerals. It's my family," he said.

At a West Coast Tomato farm just north of Immokalee, Fla., McAvoy found out 524 acres of plastic laid for tomato plantings was a "total loss." That equates to more than $1 million in losses, he said, which doesn't include the 25 acres of plants that sat under the plastic and blew away.

The losses will set the farm back three weeks to a month on its planting schedule. "It's going to be an extensive amount of work just to get it redone," McAvoy said.

For area vegetable growers, harvesting usually begins by mid-October, and a primary mission is to have plenty of vegetables in the market for Thanksgiving, one of their most lucrative times of the year when there isn't as much competition from other U.S. regions or other countries, namely Mexico.

"We'll be lucky to hit the Christmas market this year," McAvoy said.

Frey Farms lost 95 acres of watermelons in LaBelle, McAvoy said. Other growers lost early plantings of squash, cucumbers, peppers and eggplant. 

Alfie Oakes, owner of Oakes Farms, estimates his vegetable crop losses at $1.4 million to $1.6 million. Everything he had planted in Immokalee is gone, he said, including tomatoes and green peppers.

At one farm, Oakes said his drip irrigation tape was torn out of the ground, dragged across the field and twisted, which he attributes to tornado activity. All of his 17 greenhouses collapsed.

"You always hope for the best. But it was pretty sad out there," he said.

Fortunately, he moved the 5 million transplants that were in the greenhouses to safety ahead of the storm. "Right now they are doing great," he said.

The state's citrus industry is looking at serious damage from Irma — and Southwest Florida could have seen some of the worst of it.

“While the full extent of the impact is still being explored, this is definitely an event with very significant damage to the Florida citrus industry," said Shannon Shepp, executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus. "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. In some cases growers are dealing with trees out of the ground. Agricultural emergency declarations exist for types of natural disasters like this."

The declaration will allow for an assessment of the damage and for the development of a plan for federal assistance, she said.

"The storm didn't discriminate among large or small growers. It's all based on geography and where you ended up having your grove," Shepp said.

Ron Hamel, executive vice president of the Gulf Citrus Growers Association, estimated the hurricane knocked 50% of the fruit off the region's citrus trees. Statewide he expects the losses to be in the same range, with at least half of this season's crop wiped out.

"The whole state was in the hurricane-force winds," he said. "But certain areas got heavier intensity. ... The bands pretty much went through the heartlands of the citrus industry."

Many groves are still flooded, leaving already stressed trees standing in water and susceptible to more damage.

Fruit prices were climbing even before the storm hit.

"The prices to growers are certainly going to go up if they have fruit," Hamel said. "But the question is how that's all going to play out. Nobody knows."

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Before the storm, growers felt good about the upcoming season. Because of a wet winter last year, they saw a lot of fruit drop from a fungal disease.

"It's a sad state of affairs for the industry after being optimistic going into the season and now having to start the season with a big fruit loss," Hamel said. "It's very unfortunate."

The damage won't just hurt growers. There will be a ripple effect felt throughout the industry affecting processing facilities, packing houses and other related operations. Farmworkers, who are already dealing with personal losses from Irma, may find themselves with less work.

On the flip side, Hamel said growers could struggle to find enough help if farmworkers find jobs in construction and landscaping to assist with the massive cleanup after Irma.

Despite his losses, Wayne Simmons, owner of the LaBelle Fruit Co., said he still feels fortunate.

"We surely got a lot of damage to the groves," he said. "The house is good, and we'll survive."

Most of his trees are still standing, and he's thankful for that. A Category 4 or 5 storm, he said, "would have just made tumbleweeds out of citrus trees."


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