Agriculture Groups Take Action After Irma Hits Florida Citrus Crops

More than half of all Florida citrus crops, particularly oranges, were damaged by Hurricane Irma earlier this month. Agriculture groups are trying to assess the damage, help growers recover, and aid migrant workers hurt by the storm.

Hurricane Irma largely didn’t cause the level of damage expected in Florida earlier this month, in part because the storm moved further west than storm trackers initially anticipated.

But that shift was bad news for the state’s citrus industry. According to some estimates, the storm damaged between half and three-quarters of the state’s orange crops, many of which go directly into orange juice.

(The good news: According to The Lakeland Ledger, the grapefruit crop, mostly on the eastern side of the state, weathered the tropical-storm-strength winds well—notable because the heavier fruit is more susceptible to wind.)

In comments to The Washington Post, the Florida Department of Citrus, a trade group for the citrus industry, put the damage caused by the storm in stark terms.

“Significant is not the right word,” executive director Shannon Shepp said. “It’s somewhere between significant and catastrophic. And that’s a big word—I don’t use it lightly.”

The industry had already been struggling with other issues, such as a decline in orange juice consumption and the impact of “citrus greening”—a disease, also known as huanglongbing, that causes deformities in fruits and harms their flavor. The disease is linked to a decline of $4.64 billion in orange and grapefruit revenues.

But the industry looked like it was going to bounce back this year—at least until Irma hit.

“It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen in my time in this industry—and I’ve been doing this since 1994,” Shepp told the Post. “Growers were already in a bad situation. This was supposed to be their turnaround year. Then Irma happened.”

Florida Citrus Mutual, another industry organization that operates as a voluntary cooperative, has asked its members to fill out a survey to help it understand the impact of the damage.

Speaking to Southeast Produce Weekly, Florida Citrus Mutual CEO Michael Sparks warned that “every single citrus grove has been affected adversely in some way by Hurricane Irma.”

Agriculture groups have warned that additional labor will be needed to help the citrus industry recover.

“A major concern for growers is finding available workers to help them in their recovery efforts,” Lisa Lochridge, director of public affairs for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association (FFVA), told Southeast Produce Weekly. “The labor supply was already very tight, so this is also an issue they’re dealing with.”

Meanwhile, the storm’s disruption of the early growing season has caused financial hardship for many migrant workers. FFVA, along with the Redlands Christian Migrant Association and the Florida Specialty Crop Foundation, is currently raising money for agricultural workers affected by the storm, with the goal of raising $100,000.

(Barcin/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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