Florida Citrus Industry Squeezed by Hurricane Ian; Crop Insurance to Cover Some Losses

The water has receded, but the stench remains. As Emma Reynolds Ezell surveys the damage a night of 100-mph winds has wreaked on her orange groves, she can’t get over the stench. It’s nothing like the usual sweet citrus scent wafting in the wind. Instead, it’s “swampy”: the foul smell of seeping mud that has filled local ditches after nearby Lake Placid overflowed in the torrential rains.

It’s been about a week since Ian struck. One of the worst hurricanes to ever hit the United States, the storm left millions of Florida homes without power, unleashed a devastating storm surge and left dozens dead. And only now are growers finally able to make some of their first guesses about what the devastation will mean for the state’s legendary $6.7 billion citrus industry.

The first estimates are bad.

Growers like Ezell predict they’ve lost at least half their crops to wind damage. It could be even worse in some of the hardest-hit areas, with reports of up to 80% of fruit being blown off trees on some farms. That’s devastating for an industry already grappling with a crippling crop disease. And it’s bad news for a world gripped by shocking food inflation. New York-traded orange juice futures jumped to a six-year high this week amid supply concerns before giving back some of those gains.

In Hardee and Highland counties in Florida, in the heart of the citrus belt, signs of disaster are ever-present. Branches strong enough to support the weight of the mature fruit hanging from their twigs snapped off immediately and are scattered on the ground. In some places the wind was so strong that the trees themselves were pulled out of the ground, exposing their bare roots. Trenches are overflowing, and in nearby DeSoto County, some areas are still so flooded or mud-ravaged that roads are impassable.

But what’s even more striking are the tens of thousands of dead fruits lying on the ground. At Ezell’s farm, it looks like an 18-wheel truck spilled its load to cover their groves in bright yellow and green softballs. The growing season was still ongoing, meaning that much of the fruit was not yet fully ripe and had reached its full characteristic orange colour.

The night Ian arrived, Ezell was huddled in her house. She and her husband huddled together in a room with their two children, Eli and Eloise. A Florida native and fourth-generation farmer, Ezell is no stranger to hurricanes. But this one was different. As the wind howled and the speed rose to 100 miles per hour, she began to pray. At 6am the next morning, after only a few hours of sleep, she was already in her grove counting the damage.

Fallen oranges after Hurricane Ian in the orchard at Mixon Fruit Farms in Bradenton, Fla. on Wednesday October 5th. Bloomberg photo.

“Imagine walking into your livelihood and seeing it destroyed,” said Ezell, who is also president of the Highlands County Citrus Growers Association.

Florida is a major source of vegetables, livestock, dairy, and fruit—especially the oranges it’s famous for. The state grows 500,000 acres of fresh produce each year and generates approximately $20 billion in total revenue. There are more than 6,400 fruit and vegetable farms employing a total of 139,000 workers. It also represents US$516 million in fresh produce and tree nut exports.

Ian raced through four of Florida’s top five citrus growing regions: DeSoto, Highlands, Hardee and Polk. The industry is one of the key economic drivers in the region, supporting nearly 33,000 full- and part-time jobs in the country, including on farms and in packaging and processing plants.

Shrinking harvests

Even before the storm, Florida growers were facing one of the smallest harvests on record, partly because of a decades-long battle with a devastating disease called citrus greening that damages fruit and eventually kills trees. The drought in Brazil, the world’s largest orange grower, has brought production there to a standstill. Farms in California have also suffered from the dry weather. Global challenges have helped orange juice futures surge nearly 50% over the past 12 months.

For Florida, production hurdles have been so acute that it is questionable whether California will overtake the Sunshine State as the nation’s largest citrus grower.

Ian was “certainly not a death sentence for the industry,” said Ray Royce, executive director of the Highlands producer group. But he says: “It’s another setback and I’m not trying to sugarcoat it.”

At Mixon Fruit Farms, a citrus producer on the coast south of Tampa, the damage will likely take weeks to be tabulated.

“The oranges are under the tree now,” said Janet Mixon, referring to her groves in Manatee County. “The fruits were not yet ready to be picked, but the wind carried them away immediately.”

Ned Hancock, a fifth-generation farmer who owns about 900 acres of citrus groves in Highlands and Hardee counties, said he will do everything possible to avoid having to lay off any of his full-time employees.

That will be a big challenge after more than 50% of the fruit was blown off its trees in Highlands County and losses of about 75% in Hardee. Hancock said Ian dumped about 15 inches of rain on his land, leaving temporary rivers between rows of trees. The standing water not only makes the damage visible, but also the underground tree roots suffer. Some of its farming infrastructure has also been destroyed and will be very expensive to repair, he said.

Crop insurance can cover some of the losses, but Hancock, along with many of the area’s farmers, expects a year without profitability. Margins have been squeezed for years by rising costs, exacerbated by the recent fertilizer rush.

“It’s been a huge blow and the first thing you worry about is the people, the family, the staff – but you can’t help but think, ‘What will it be like to rebuild from a grove? ‘” Hancock said. “It won’t be pleasant or easy.”

Photo above: Janet Mixon inspects her orchard. She estimates that Hurricane Ian caused a 30% crop loss. Photographer: Tristan Wheelock/Bloomberg

Copyright 2022 Bloomberg.

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