Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Farmers Race to Recover from Irma; Storm Delays Planting in Region; Statewide Crop Loss at $2.6B, Climbing

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Farmers Race to Recover from Irma; Storm Delays Planting in Region; Statewide Crop Loss at $2.6B, Climbing

Article excerpt

Byline: Teresa Stepzinski

A month after Hurricane Irma inflicted almost $2.6 billion in total agricultural damage statewide, Northeast Florida farmers still scramble to recover from shredded crops, flooded fields, flattened farm buildings and a delayed planting season.

Informal estimates suggest the storm's total agricultural tab will be well into the billions of dollars, Florida Farm Bureau Federation officials say.

After record flooding fueled by storm surge and monster rains, farm families might be assessing their Irma losses for several months before a final total estimate is available, said G.B. Crawford, federation public relations director.

"Many of the losses will be calculated in coming weeks. It's very difficult for folks to make a total estimate if they're still struggling to get to their fields, their pastures, round up animals, to repair buildings," Crawford said.

Crawford also said many farmers and ranchers face weeks of rebuilding or replanting before full operations resume. Other challenges include repairing or restoring irrigation systems, machinery and other farm equipment.

Consumers ultimately will pay the price at the grocery store. But the cost - be it scarcity or higher prices for fruits, vegetables, beef or dairy products - also is unknown as yet, Northeast Florida farmers say.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam released preliminary damage estimates for each segment of the state's agriculture industry last week, emphasizing the initial assessment likely will increase.

Putnam said the initial assessment reflects current crop losses as well as losses such as debris cleanup, damaged infrastructure, and animals' long-term welfare.

"We're likely to see even greater economic losses as we account for loss of future production and the cost to rebuild infrastructure," Putnam said.

Anecdotal evidence and informal evaluations indicate that Northeast Florida fared somewhat better that Southwest Florida, which agriculture experts say suffered the most severe overall agricultural destruction.

Southwest Florida farmers who had already planted fall vegetables, including tomatoes, report a near-total loss, according to the state Farm Bureau Federation.

Florida's citrus industry - which supplies about half of America's orange juice - also suffered catastrophic losses. Some experts estimate Irma destroyed as much as 70 percent of the state citrus crop, with some growers losing as much as 90 percent, according to U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.

Nelson filed a bill last week to provide tax relief to farmers as well as other individuals and small businesses hardest hit by Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

Scattered assessments among Florida ornamental plant growers, including some in Northeast Florida, indicate that many greenhouses and shade covers either were demolished, left partially standing, or sustained other damagee.

Some Florida nursery owners reported having less than 50 percent of their plants in marketable condition, according to the state Farm Bureau Federation.

NE FLORIDA FARM DAMAGE

Farmers growing vegetables and ornamental plants in St. Johns, Clay, Putnam, Flagler and Volusia counties reported damage to crops and barns. They also reported fields submerged beneath several feet of water, and greenhouses destroyed.

Farm families are salvaging the crops they can and focusing on moving forward with planting or replanting as they continue to cleanup debris.

ST. JOHNS COUNTY

Fifth generation Barnes Farms in Hastings - the agricultural heart of St. Johns County - grows cabbage and other vegetables routinely found on home dinner tables and served in restaurants along the East Coast.

The Barnes family farm escaped Hurricane Irma largely unscathed simply because it hadn't planted yet. But the storm put the family behind schedule for planting. …

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