Hurricane Irma’s Devastation to Florida Agriculture

by Robbie Hall, TerViva Propagation & Agronomy Associate

Hurricane Irma swept across Florida on September 10-11, 2017, leaving a wake of destruction behind. A month later, Floridians are still dealing with the aftermath. Agriculture is Florida’s second largest industry, and contributed $4 billion to the state’s economy in 2015 [1]. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services released its preliminary report on Irma’s damage to the industry on October 4, 2017, and estimates agricultural damages totaling over $2.5 billion! Here is the breakdown of losses outline in this report [2]:

  • Total Florida Agriculture: $2,558,598,303
  • Citrus: $760,816,600
  • Greenhouse, Nursery and Floriculture: $624,819,895
  • Sugar: $382,603,397
  • Forestry: $261,280,000
  • Beef Cattle: $237,476,562
  • Fruits and Vegetables (excluding citrus): $180,193,096
  • Field Crops: $62,747,058
  • Aquaculture: $36,850,000
  • Dairy: $11,811,695

The economic assessment above accounts for some crop losses, damaged infrastructure, debris cleanup, and animals’ long-term welfare that was affected by Irma. These costs will likely increase as more information is made available. The remainder of this blog post will discuss some of the impacts from Irma in greater detail and provide some insight into what could potentially happen in the near future.

Florida’s citrus industry has been reeling over the past decade from production losses, due to the citrus greening disease [3], and Hurricane Irma was the last thing growers needed to come along. Reports range from 40% of lost fruit in Central Florida, to as much as 100% in some areas of Southwest Florida [4]. These numbers are still climbing, as damaged fruit initially left on the trees continues to drop. In addition to fruit loss, some of the trees received significant structural damage, such as broken limbs and even trunks splitting down the middle. One of the hardest hit groves near LaBelle, FL, had 70% of its trees ripped from the ground, exposing the roots of the trees. The severely damaged trees will need to be cleared out with front-end loaders. Some of the smaller trees that were blown over can be pruned, stood back up, and braced, but that will require additional labor. Paul Meador, owner of the LaBelle-based Everglades Harvesting & Hauling, brought up another point. “The trees are extremely stressed. You get what’s left of this crop off, and then next year we’ll probably have half a crop again… It’s the ugly gift that keeps on giving” [3].

RH fallen fruits

Fallen fruit sits on the ground below orange trees in Frostproof, FL, U.S. Hurricane Irma destroyed almost half of the citrus crop in some areas.
PC: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Hurricane Irma caused problems for cattle owners as well, especially in Okeechobee County. As everyone in the state frenzied to prepare for Irma’s landfall, many routine operations became interrupted. One of these instances happened with the “grain train”, a train bound for Okeechobee with 26 freight cars of ground corn, soybean meal, cottonseed meal, and other commodities used in making feed for the dairy cattle in the area. On the weekend of September 2nd, farmers anxiously awaited the overdue delivery. As the week wore on, the grain train still had not arrived. Fortunately, the State Agricultural Response Team (SART), a partnership made up of government agencies and non-profit groups, intervened and the train finally arrived Friday evening, September 8th.

Without SART’s assistance, many dairy cows could have gone without food for too long [5]. After the hurricane arrived, one beef cattle ranch in Okeechobee, the Alderman-Deloney Ranch, experienced major flooding after a surrounding dike broke loose. A group of 20 people had to move the herd of approximately 500 cattle five miles down the road to higher ground at the Triple S Ranch. The Aldermans believe that at least five of the animals drowned before they were able to be moved [6][7]. Statewide, ranchers estimate that 100 animals died during the storm. Some additional losses from this disturbance include an estimate of 7 percent of cows not breeding this year, and approximately 187,000 calves losing close to 50 lbs each while awaiting shipment to out-of-state feedlots ($75 loss per calf) [4]. Other losses to cattle owners include damage to grain bins and commodity barns, as well as rain-soaked commodities, feed, and silage [5].

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Antique windmill before hurricane Irma – PC: Robbie Hall

 

On a personal note, my family has a small cattle operation near Bushnell, FL, and we were not without our own problems from Hurricane Irma. Countless trees and large limbs fell around our property, and many came down on our barbed wire fences. We spent the rest of the week sawing up trees and rebuilding our fences around the perimeter of our property before some of our cattle decided to go out on the highway. Additionally, we were without power for six days, and by the fifth day, our cattle water troughs were empty. Thankfully, we were able to borrow a friend’s trailer that had a 500-gallon tank, and used a generator so we could pump and haul water to the empty troughs. At the moment, we still have trees and cross-fences down on the interior of our property that will need to be repaired when we have time, but our cattle at least cannot escape anymore. We were very fortunate that we did not have any structural damage to our house and barn, but our antique windmill was not lucky in surviving the storm!

RH antique mill after

Robbie hauling water to the empty trough in front of the damaged windmill after hurricane Irma – PC: Matthew Hall

This blog post was not meant to be an exhaustive discussion of all those industries affected, because really all of Florida was affected; Hurricane Irma was roughly the size of Texas, so it was thorough in enveloping the whole entire state! Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam has stated that he will “present the needs of Florida’s agricultural sector to Congress and ask for short-term federal disaster relief” [8]. In the meantime farmers will continue their efforts in recovering from this natural disaster. In addition to the losses incurred by the agricultural sector, Hurricane Irma could impact Florida’s economy in a couple of other ways. Some of these domestic crops may be replaced in grocery stores with foreign competition from countries such as Mexico, Honduras, and Costa Rica [1]. Also, Puerto Rico was ravaged by both hurricanes Irma and Maria, and there will likely be an influx of people moving to Florida that will be looking for jobs in construction and agriculture-related fields [8]. One thing is certain: Florida agriculture will never forget Hurricane Irma!

 

References

  1. http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/weather/hurricane/fl-reg-irma-agriculture-tour-20170918-story.html
  2. http://www.citrusindustry.net/2017/10/05/760-million-initial-estimate-of-irmas-florida-citrus-damage/
  3. https://www.thepacker.com/node/3091
  4. http://www.wptv.com/news/state/irma-s-agriculture-toll-tops-2-5-billion-in-florida
  5. http://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/news/2017/09/27/uf-expert-helps-ensure-grain-train-gets-feed-dairy-cows/
  6. https://www.local10.com/weather/hurricane-irma/hundreds-of-cows-rescued-from-flooded-ranch-in-okeechobee-county
  7. http://www.wptv.com/news/region-okeechobee-county/cows-dead-many-more-at-risk-after-okeechobee-county-ranch-floods
  8. http://www.floridatrend.com/article/23179/perseverance-a-priority-for-florida-farmers-post-irma

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