Both Florida citrus and early-planted vegetables in south Florida sustained damage from Hurricane Irma, and growers were just beginning to count the cost Sept. 11.
With growers surveying their fields after the storm, there are no concrete crop loss estimates or dollar loss projections from the storm as of Sept. 11, said Lisa Lochridge, director of public affairs for the Maitland-based Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association.
Based on conversations with various citrus sources, she said many groves experienced heavy fruit drop. “(Fruit drop) is the bigger problem versus tree damage,” she said. “It seems like everybody is talking about how much fruit is on the ground.”
In addition, some citrus groves in south Florida are flooded, which could make the trees susceptible to disease if the water doesn’t recede quickly.
Southwest Florida vegetable fields experienced heavy winds, resulting in damage to plastic mulch and tape irrigation systems, she said. Though Irma hit the state early in the south Florida vegetable planting window, Lochridge said there will be gaps in Florida vegetable supply later in the year.
In Plant City, Lochridge said strawberry growers are getting their fields ready for planting, so the storm may have set that process back.
In southwest Florida, one grower said Irma resulted in 100% loss of anything that was planted.
“We had a lot of specialty peppers, eggplants and tomatoes in the ground and we had just planted some summer squash last week,” said Steve Veneziano, vice president of sales and operations at Oakes Farms Inc., Naples, Fla.
Those crops are lost, he said, and replanting those vegetables won’t be easy.
“You can’t just throw the seed in the ground — you have get the seed, bring it to the greenhouses, seed it and after 42 days you can pull it and plant it,” he said. After that, it is another 70 to 90 days before the vegetable is harvested.
“Everybody cut their greenhouses down to avoid destruction, but by the time greenhouses are ready to start seeding again, it could be three to four weeks on average,” he said.
What’s more, operating machinery on flooded farm land won’t be possible right away.
Heavy flooding was widespread near Naples, and trees were blown across highways. The roof of one of the company’s packinghouses was blown away.
Damage to the Homestead region was reportedly not as severe, as that region experienced 70 to 90 mph winds compared with gusts of 140 to 150 mph near Naples, Veneziano said.
“This will set things back for the entire month of November, December and most of January on items like peppers, tomatoes and eggplants out of south Florida,” he said Sept. 11.
In December last year, U.S. Department of Agriculture shipment figures show Florida accounted for 20% of total U.S. and imported bell pepper volume, 22% of the total eggplant supply and 54% of combined domestic and imported tomato volume.
Veneziano said the company had planted close to 20% of their land when Irma hit, while other growers had planted only 8% to 10% of their crops.
If Irma had not hit, squash and cucumbers would have been ready to harvest in October and other vegetable crops would have been ready to harvest in November. “There will be a large gap for sure,” he said.
After battling low-priced imports from Mexico last winter season, he said the setback from Irma will make it harder for Florida vegetable growers to stay in business.