Irma will impact agriculture in Hendry County for long time

The agriculture community of Hendry County is again proving its resiliency, moving on from the damage left by Hurricane Irma. Already reeling from years of fighting natural and economic factors that could even affect their continued viability, farmers and growers have already rolled up their sleeves and gotten back to work. In addition to dealing with their personal losses, agricultural workers are struggling with storm impact that could linger for months.

Hendry County Extension Director Gene McAvoy recently submitted his overall damage report on area agriculture, including citrus, vegetables, horticulture, cattle and sugar cane.

The storm was another blow to citrus’ decline from greening. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) had predicted a slight increase this year. Now that expectation has gone from 69 million boxes to 12-16 million boxes.

According to his report, 70 percent of Hendry’s citrus fruit was blown off the trees. Another 10-15 percent of fruit on the trees has been lost due to twisted stems stressed trees.

Long-term effects, attributed to flooded groves, include loss of trees and loss of productivity from tree systems attacked by pathogenic fungi.

In some locations 10-15 percent of trees were uprooted – and many uprooted trees caused damage to irrigation systems.

Although pruning and resetting may save trees that only suffered limb loss, Mr. McAvoy said production will suffer for years to come. He warned that damaged buildings, dikes around retention areas and pump stations, as well as washed out farm roads, require time and costly repairs.

According Mr. McAvoy’s report, Hendry farmers plant approximately 20,000 acres in vegetables.

With land preparation and planting normally beginning in August in this area, Mr. McAvoy said it is fortunate that Irma hit early in the season. However, all vegetables that had already been planted were lost – including some 4,500-5,000 acres of tomatoes, peppers, herbs, squash, cucumbers, melons, corn and beans.

He explained that Southwest Florida farmers begin preparing and replanting in August in raised beds covered with plastic. Preparation of about 15,000 acres of land, including plastic covering that had already been laid, was lost.

Flooding and removal of ruined plastic are hampering efforts to clear the damage and replant. A worker shortage further complicates recovery since many workers, like so many residents, had family and personal needs to tend to after the storm.

Mr. McAvoy anticipates production will be delayed for four-six weeks, so the normal October start to harvesting will be pushed back to some time in December. That means Hendry farmers will miss the Thanksgiving market, he noted.

Packing houses also felt Irma’s punch. Although most are in Immokalee, Frey Farms on Sears Road and sheds on B and G roads sustained major damages.

Again, farm buildings and infrastructure including dikes were damaged and farm roads washed out.

Six major transplanting operations in Southwest Florida, normally producing some one billion vegetable seedlings per year, are feeling the sting. Mobley Plant World in Hendry County lost 19 of 51 production houses.

Seed breeders, like Seminis (Monsanto), BHN, Sakata, HM Clause and Syngenta, sustained damages. Some will not plant this fall, Mr. McAvoy said.

Hendry County has some 80,000 acres in sugar cane (the total for Southwest Florida, including Hendry, Glades, Martin, Okeechobee and Palm Beach counties is 450,000 acres). Sugar could be looking at a 10-15 percent yield reduction come harvest time.

Sugar sustained a lot of infrastructure losses, as did the other crops.

Irma’s damages to United States Sugar Company’s mill and refinery could exceed $20 million, Mr. McAvoy’s report said.

Livestock faired the storm well. Some homestead poultry and small animals like goats were lost, as well as a few cattle, although temporary loss of pasture from flooding could affect pasture quality. As with other agriculture products, the sugar industry experienced building and infrastructure damages.

Some ornamental nurseries suffered from the hurricane. Across the state horticulture sustained huge losses, although Hendry’s ornamental plant industry is small.

Mr. McAvoy noted that Irma has disproportionately impacted farm workers. With damages to or loss of substandard mobile homes coupled with the inability to work, many face a devastating loss of income for a long time as the agriculture industry tries to recover.

Federal government disaster programs are offering agriculture concerns in Southwest Florida a helping hand to overcome some of the worst losses.

Credit is still being extended to farmers, so their work can continue.

Overall, Mr. McAvoy said he’s heard no one talk about giving up. Farmers are used to dealing with setbacks and most are simply moving forward in the face of yet another disaster.

In conclusion, the report ties losses in Hendry’s fields, pastures and packinghouses to an expected serious impact on the entire county “from grocery stores to county government.”

Patty Brant, can be reached at cbnews@newszap.com

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