Florida fruit growers and farmers have just barely begun to assess the damage Hurricane Irma wrought on the state’s citrus, sugar cane and vegetable crops — but they expect it will be significant.
With power and communications still out across much of Florida, officials said Tuesday that getting a full picture will take weeks. What remains unknown: Exactly 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.
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“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 lot of fruit to the ground but uprooted relatively few trees, which will help growers in the long term.
Lisa Lochridge, a spokeswoman 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 this week 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…