Hurricane Wilma hits Florida growers hard
Everyone in the path of Hurricane Wilma agrees that the storm was more damaging and affected a larger area than had been anticipated. They also predict it could have an impact on volume and pricing for Florida crops in the next few weeks.
The storm swept across south and southwest Florida October 24. Two days later, Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson toured affected farms, ranches and nurseries and estimated that Wilma had caused at least $1 billion in damage to the state’s agriculture industry.
Two weeks later, state officials raised the tally for the 2005 hurricane season to $2.2 billion. In figures released November 4, that figure broke down to $370 million in damage to the sugar industry, $180 million to citrus, $44 million to tropical fruit, $311 million to vegetables, and a whopping $1.1 billion in damage to nurseries, with the remainder going to the beef cattle and shell-fishing industries.
COMMISSIONER SEEKS FUNDS
Bronson immediately made plans to seek money for low-interest and long-term loans, tax relief and other financial assistance. Worried also about the spread of citrus canker and citrus greening, he asked the Florida Legislature for an additional $126 million to fight those diseases alone. And he spoke about the damage with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns.
On October 27, Bronson wrote to Governor Jeb Bush, saying he intended to ask for federal and state assistance. In part, the letter read “Governor, time and again our state’s agricultural producers have demonstrated their resiliency and overcome near-impossible odds. This winter, they were banking on crops to repay loans they assumed after previous storms. If they quickly replant, the timing of their harvest dates will make them latecomers in a market filled with competitors. This market glut will cause prices to plummet and, in many cases, will not even cover our farmers’ cost of production.”
Bronson then met with representatives of Florida’s various agricultural sectors to be briefed on updated damage figures. He took the information he gathered to Washington November 7, where he spoke with members of the Florida congressional delegation to drum up support for federal assistance. High on the list is replacement farmworker housing. He would also like to see the cap on disaster relief, now $80,000, waived.
“The timing of this hurricane made it especially damaging,” said Ray Gilmer, director of public affairs for Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association (FFVA). “It came when growers were in full production.”
By comparison, last year’s series of hurricanes hit relatively early in Florida’s production cycle, allowing growers to replant quickly. Hurricane Wilma, hitting Florida farms when it did, will cause significant disruptions to the usual harvest schedules.
Danny Raulerson, FFVA’s director of marketing, toured the storm-battered areas at about the same time Bronson did. He said tomatoes had been blown from plants in Southwest Florida and in some cases entire fields were flooded. “And some tomatoes had actually been peeled by storm-force wind and rain. If any plants recover, it will be several weeks before they can produce a marketable crop,” he said at that time.
In the Everglades Agricultural Area, Raulerson said the storm destroyed leafy vegetable crops and blew sweet corn and sugarcane plants over on to their sides.
As far as damage to citrus, grapefruit looked the worst. “I’d say about 80 percent of the grapefruit and 50 to 70 percent of the early and mid-season oranges are on the ground,” Raulerson said. “It looks like the springtime as you drive past the groves, although some of the fruit in the interior of the block was better protected,” he added.
By November 10, Raulerson was expressing at least some hope. “As long as the Florida weather stays mild, the gap in supply should be less than first feared. This is good weather for plant recovery.” he said.
The mature plants such as tomatoes, squash, and pepper (in some locations) are recovering, but the yields will be heavily affected, Raulerson said. “Items such as beans are gone and will never be recovered as far as the market window’s concerned,” he said, adding that most growers are preparing for the winter crop now. “If transplants on peppers and tomatoes were young though, they can be replanted,” he said.
In many parts of South Florida, greenhouses were seriously damaged and without power.
“These greenhouses are a source for young plants used by growers, so if they’re out of production, that could delay our growers’ ability to get back into production,” said Gilmer.
Commercial greenhouses weren’t the only ones in the hurricane’s path. Greenhouses and other facilities at University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences’ research centers in Immokalee, Belle Glade, Homestead, Indian River, Fort Pierce, Vero Beach and Fort Lauderdale also suffered heavy damage from the storm, resulting in setbacks for numerous experiments.
And recently, the Legislative Commission on Migrant and Seasonal Labor, a newly formed group of lawmakers assigned to help farmworkers, said workers may have lost as much as $50 million in wages due to Hurricane Wilma. The commission is now focusing on the post-storm housing shortage as well as longer-term assistance.
Many of those workers have left the area, a situation that’s creating labor shortages. Some have taken work in new construction projects in Hurricane Katrina’s path.
“It’s critical that we have the manpower to get back into production,” said Jay Taylor, president of tomato growers Taylor & Fulton Inc. of Palmetto. He said they need people for cleanup and replanting if they are to make their market window.
“Every day counts,” Taylor said.