Irma will impact ag 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 and 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 suffered only 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 to 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 already had been planted were lost – including between 4,500 and 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 to six weeks, so the normal October start to harvesting will be pushed back to sometime in December. That means Hendry farmers will miss the Thanksgiving market, he noted.

Packinghouses 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.

The Clewiston News is published every Thursday.

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