Early Harvest: Citrus Growers Race to Save Crop From Irma

By Teaganne Finn

Orange and grapefruit growers were hurrying to harvest their crops as Hurricane Irma barreled toward Florida, threatening to devastate the nation’s largest citrus-producing state.

“Some citrus fruit farmers are harvesting early,” John Hoblick, Florida Farm Bureau president, told Bloomberg BNA by phone Sept. 8. “With fruit bearing down on the trees, the high winds could destroy crops.”

The bureau was preparing to help farmers, such as with cleanup efforts, he said.

Florida accounts for 56 percent of U.S. citrus production and is the No. 1 state for oranges, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The state’s total production value for oranges in 2015 was $1.17 billion.

Other crops threatened by Irma are tomatoes, green beans, cotton and peanuts. Not many crops are in peak season, Hoblick said, and growers with product in the field “are just trying to protect what they have out there” by putting plastic down or using sheds.

Brantley Schirard, who grows oranges in Fort Pierce, Fla., said his trees are months away from harvesting season and not much can be done to mitigate wind damage. He added, though, that even a 10 mph variation can make a big difference.

Irma could “put an end to the season before it even starts,” said Schirard, production manager at Blue Goose Growers.

“Anything above 85 mph and there will be severe crop loss,” he said. “None of the produce can take wind like this and it’s the last thing we need.”

He said growers were hoping to rebound from a bad year of citrus greening, a disease spread by the Asian citrus psyllid, a small insect that feeds on leaves and stems of citrus trees.

Insurance Coverage Varies

Relief efforts for agriculture producers hit by Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana are still underway, and Irma will trigger further demands for aid.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has rolled out numerous programs and extensions to existing programs for Harvey victims, and the department’s workers “stand ready to help farmers and ranchers in need” from Irma, an agency spokesman told Bloomberg BNA.

Growers in some counties are covered under the federal Florida Citrus Fruit Crop Insurance Provisions, which includes protection from hurricane damage to crops but doesn’t insure against production loss from damage to blossoms or trees.

Growers not within the eligible counties are covered through the Noninsured Crop Disaster Program under the 2014 farm bill. The program’s payments are limited to $125,000 per crop year and the crops must be commercially produced commodities for which crop insurance isn’t available.

Schirard, the citrus grower, would like to see additional assistance from the USDA if the severity of damage warrants it. “We will go through the appropriate channels if we have to,” he said, but “hopefully it won’t be catastrophic.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Teaganne Finn in Washington at tfinn@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

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