Scott, Putnam seek aid for SWFL growers battered by Irma
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (The News Service of Florida) A few vendors were noticeably absent Wednesday at the first Lakes Park Farmers Market since Hurricane Irma.
The storm had devastating effects on Southwest Florida citrus growers, leading Gov. Rick Scott and Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam to Washington to stump for federal assistance.
Putnam cast doubt Wednesday on the first crop estimate for the citrus growing season, as federal officials prepare to release the estimate Thursday. He suggested the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s forecast for the 2017-2018 growing season may be too high.
“I put zero stock in it, because there’s no way they have an accurate count of the estimate they’ll release tomorrow based on the continued damage that’s falling out from Hurricane Irma and the fact that they pulled their limb counters out of the groves at a time when they didn’t have an accurate picture of the long-term damage to the trees and to the crop,” Putnam told Florida’s congressional delegation.
The federal department releases monthly forecasts throughout the growing season.
The industry has been struggling for years with citrus greening disease and a decline in acreage. But officials had expressed optimism before Irma that this season’s yield could have a slight uptick.
That changed with the storm. Shortly after Irma blew through the state Sept. 10 and Sept. 11, citrus growers were reporting losses ranging from 40 percent in Central Florida to 100 percent in Southwest Florida.
U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, a Republican whose district includes parts of Southwest Florida, is expected to propose a $2.5 billion amendment to a $36.5 billion relief package going before the House that would help states and U.S. territories impacted by hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.
Congress previously approved $15 billion for relief efforts due to Harvey and Irma.
The estimated losses to Florida’s citrus crop and trees approach $761 million, while the state’s nursery industry sustained almost $624 million in losses from Irma, according to projections by Putnam’s agency.
“You can stand in any orange grove in Florida right now and listen to the fruit hitting the ground like rainfall because of the longer-term damage that continues to play out,” Putnam told Florida’s delegation in prepared remarks sent to the media Wednesday afternoon. “You can walk through any grove in Florida and smell the rot of fruit that was just weeks away from being harvested and, as the governor said, for the first time in years may have been a larger crop than the year before.”
The 2016-2017 season ended with the orange crop down 16 percent from the previous season — which, itself, had been at a five-decades low. Grapefruit production dropped 28 percent from the prior year.
A decade ago, Florida accounted for almost three-fourths of all U.S. orange production. California was at 25.7 percent.
Florida now accounts for 58 percent of the U.S. orange production. California remains second, but is at 40.65 percent of the total.
Scott warned the delegation that Irma’s impacts could “decimate our industry long-term.”
Last week, Scott activated a $25 million emergency-loan program to support citrus growers.
Putnam said the state is looking at “catastrophic losses” for all its commodities due to Irma.
A study released last week by the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services estimated 421,176 acres of citrus were affected in Collier, Hendry, Lee, Brevard, Glades, Charlotte, St. Lucie, Highlands, Indian River, Okeechobee, DeSoto, Hardee, Osceola, Polk and Martin counties.
The nursery industry estimated that 46,204 acres of greenhouse, nursery, and floriculture production was affected.
The cattle industry damage assessment was at $237.5 million, while the dairy industry was estimated to have $11.8 million in losses.
The sugar industry was estimated to have $383 million in damage, with 534,324 acres affected.
Vegetable and fruit growers — excluding citrus — face $180 million in damage, with an estimated 163,679 acres impacted by the storm.