ZOLFO SPRINGS, Fla. (AP) — Thousands of oranges scattered across the ground by Hurricane Ian’s fierce winds like green and yellow marbles are just the beginning of disaster for citrus grower Roy Petteway.
The fruit scattered across his 100-acre (40-hectare) grove in central Florida since the storm hit will mostly go to waste. But what’s even worse is the flooding and rainwater that has weakened the orange trees in ways that are hard to see right away.
“Over the next six months we will be assessing the damage,” Petteway said in an interview at his farm, where he estimates a 40% crop loss. “You’re going to have a lot of damage that will rear its head.”
Citrus is big business in Florida, with more than 375,000 acres (152,000 hectares) in the state devoted to oranges, grapefruit, tangerines and the like for an industry valued at more than $6 billion annually. Hurricane Ian hit citrus groves hard, as well as the state’s large livestock industry, dairy operations, vegetables like tomatoes and peppers, and even hundreds of thousands of bees essential to many growers.
“This year is going to be tough, no one is arguing, but I believe in the tenacity and passion of our citrus industry professionals to come back stronger than ever,” said Nikki Fried, Commissioner of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
The orange forecast for 2022-2023, released Wednesday, puts production at around 28 million boxes, or 1.26 million tons, according to the US Department of Agriculture. That’s 32% below year on year. above and does not take into account hurricane damage, which will surely worsen those numbers.
The majority of Florida oranges are used for juice, and this season’s drastically lower crop, combined with the as-yet-unquantified blow from Ian, will push prices higher and force growers to rely even more heavily on oranges. from California and those imported from Latin America.
“This is a punch to the stomach. There’s no question about it,” said Matt Joyner, executive director of the Florida Citrus Mutual trade association. “You really have about 72 hours to get the water out of these trees before you start to experience significant damage, if not mortality. Trees need water to grow. They don’t need to be standing in the water.”
US Senator Marco Rubio, who appeared at a Florida Citrus Mutual event this week in Zolfo Springs, about 75 miles (120 kilometers) southeast of Tampa, said about $3 billion in federal funds are needed to cover the costs of crop and tree loss. And, Rubio told about 500 people at the meeting, it’s crucial not to let the storm wipe out farmland.
“When you lose land, and what happens is people can’t afford to do this anymore, and that land is taken away. It’s gone,” the Republican senator said. “I have never seen a mall converted back to farmland.”
Then there are the bees.
The University of Florida estimates that about 380,000 known bee colonies were in the path of Hurricane Ian as it passed through the state. The storm not only damaged hives, but also uprooted flowers, prompting some bees to raid other colonies in search of the honey they need to eat.
“Masses of bee colonies submerged in water are in danger,” the Florida Farm Bureau said in a statement. “Bee pollination is critical to sustaining our state’s plants and crops, and is just one example of the long-term effects of this deadly storm.”
More than 100 people died in Florida from the storm, about half in hard-hit Lee County, where the powerful Category 4 hurricane made landfall with 155 mph (259 kph) winds on Sept. 28.
Hardee County, home to Petteway’s citrus and cattle operation, recorded four such storm-related deaths. In addition to that tragedy, the long-term effects on the agriculture industry will add wide-ranging impacts on the community.
“If you eat, you’re part of farming,” Petteway, a fifth-generation Floridian, said during a tour of his groves. “We anticipated a very good harvest this year. Unfortunately, there is nothing we can do about it. It’s devastating.”
As Petteway was driving in a golf cart, he spotted a new donkey in a neighboring pasture that he hadn’t seen before the hurricane. Coincidentally, not long after the storm passed, his wife gave birth to a baby girl, now a little over a week old.
People in these rural parts of Florida, he said, will recover as they always have.
“This was going to be the first good year in a long time,” he said. “We are a resilient group. This is just another hurdle.”
For more coverage of Hurricane Ian, visit: https://apnews.com/hub/hurricanes