Grower group says Irma caused 50 to 70 percent citrus loss in portions of South Florida

  • Hurricane Irma caused losses of 50 to 70 percent of Florida's citrus crop in portions of South Florida, according to the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association.
  • Oranges and grapefruit were hard hit by the storm, but there also were impacts to fields in the south and central areas where other crops grow, particularly strawberries and tomatoes.
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Senator Bill Nelson, left, speaks with Vic Story as he tours the Story Grove orange grove where large numbers of oranges sit on the ground in the wake of Hurricane Irma on September 13, 2017 in Lake Wales, Florida.

More than half the citrus grown in the southern part of Florida was lost due to Hurricane Irma, a state grower group said Wednesday.

"Based on reports from the field, it's estimated that there's a 50 to 70 percent crop loss in South Florida, depending on the region," said Lisa Lochridge, a spokesperson for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, a trade group representing growers across the state. "Losses are less going north."

On Monday, CNBC was told preliminary assessment of the storm showed up to 30 percent of some major crops such as grapefruit had losses, according to estimates by Joel Widenor, a meteorologist and co-founder of Commodity Weather Group.

In an interview Wednesday, Widenor said CWG didn't revise its initial estimates, but he added that "the ground crews will have a much better feel for it. Certainly, it could be higher than what we were saying."

As for other crops, she said there was some damage in fields where other fruits and vegetables grow in the southern and central parts of the state, particularly tomatoes and strawberries. For example, she said plastic ground covering and irrigation systems got ripped up by the storm, and there's standing water in fields too.

"As a result, the tomato crop is expected to be light at the first part of November, but volume should build and we expect a solid December," she said. "Strawberry growers expect to be able to recover quickly and stay on their timetable to be harvesting on time."

There's still no official reports of economic loss totals from agriculture but it could surpass $100 million, as the value of Florida's citrus last year exceeded $1 billion. The most vulnerable citrus crop due to Irma is grapefruit because of its weight on the trees, although orange groves also suffered losses.

Another crop hard hit by Irma was Florida's sugar cane, which had a value last year of $561 million, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"The impact is shocking and will be felt for many months," USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement. "In addition to efforts being made on the ground to assist producers, we have taken a hard look at our regular reporting requirements and adjusted them so producers can take care of pressing needs first and mostly deal with documentation and claims later."

Before Hurricane Irma, Florida was expecting to harvest more than 75 million boxes worth of oranges, according to the Florida Department of Citrus. "Due to the storm, we now have much less," said Shannon Shepp, the agency's executive director.

In an emailed statement, Lochridge said "Irma cut a powerful swath through the epicenter of Florida's citrus-growing region. The primary problem is that the excessive winds stripped the trees of fruit."

Some citrus-growing areas faced peak wind gusts between about 60 and 80 mph during Hurricane Irma.

According to government data, Central Florida's Polk County — located between Orlando and Tampa — is the state's biggest county in terms of citrus production, followed by Hendry, located on Lake Okeechobee's southwestern shore.

Lochridge said the devastating storm "uprooted trees, but that is not as big of a problem, which is good for the growers longer-term. Many groves are flooded, however, and it will take growers a while to get all of that excess water pumped out."

The standing water also can be a major source of diseases for citrus trees. Root rot endangers the health of the tree when the trunk stays moist for extended periods of time.

Unfortunately, Florida's citrus industry knows all too well the cost of tree diseases.

The state's citrus trees have been suffering from citrus greening disease since the first case was discovered more than a decade ago. Last year, a study by the University of Florida estimated between 80 and 90 percent of the state's citrus acreage was infected by citrus greening, which is spread primarily by an insect the size of a grain of rice.

Although Irma took a westward path, more or less up the west coast of Florida, USDA meteorologist Brad Rippey told CNBC on Monday that "winds were extremely strong even through some of the east coast citrus areas."

Florida ranks second in orange juice production to Brazil, and its grapefruit accounts for more than half of the U.S. production, according to the USDA. The state also grows tangerines and other specialty citrus crops.

Overall, Widenor on Monday estimated that Florida's citrus losses were between 10 and 20 percent. He estimates a 10 percent loss to the state's sugar cane crop, and given that Florida represents about half the total U.S. crop there could be a 5 percent haircut to the national production.

Another potential problem for growers will be cleaning up and finding labor to work fields. Some of the farm labor may switch to jobs in construction, as demand for those jobs rises in the rebuilding.

"A big concern for growers is finding available workers to help them in their recovery efforts," Lochridge said. "The labor supply was already very tight, so this is also an issue they're dealing with."

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