Miami-Dade’s $2.5 billion agricultural industry absorbed a substantial hit as Hurricane Irma blew through the county’s farming region in Homestead and the Redland, snapping or toppling acres of landscaping trees, spoiling much of its okra and late avocado crops and tearing apart greenhouses and shade structures in the critical nursery sector.
“It’s all devastated,” said Homestead farmer John Alger on Thursday, describing his shock at the condition of his 250-acre tree farm and his 15 acres of avocados as he flew a drone over his holdings to document the damage. “I didn’t realize how bad it was.
“Our business is in tough shape. My avocado harvest is over, and it’s going to be months before we get this [tree farm] back up, maybe over a year. Some of our trees just snapped at the base. We can’t believe it. My manager of 32 years said this is the worst she’s seen since Hurricane Andrew.”
It’s too early to put an overall dollar number on the losses because farmers are still assessing, said Miami-Dade County’s agricultural manager, Charles LaPradd. Landscaping palms and trees can be set back upright, for instance. But the extent of harm won’t be fully apparent until soil testing determines whether the stretch of tree farms east of the Florida Turnpike suffered saltwater intrusion from storm surge, he added.
“We don’t know how much salt came in with all the water. That will take a few weeks to ascertain,” LaPradd said. “We know most of it was under water, but we don’t know how much was saltwater and how much was freshwater” that comes from rain and overflowing drainage canals.
If saltwater intrusion was significant, he said, the consequences could be drastic: Hurricane Betsy in 1965 raised the area’s soil salinity so much that tree farming stopped for two years.
Irma’s blow to the local nursery industry could also be extensive, LaPradd said. He estimated that most of the registered 1,400 nurseries in the county, concentrated in the Redland, suffered damage to structures and plants “to varying degrees.” Those nurseries, which now represent a huge chunk of the county’s ag sector, supply much of the United States with landscaping materials and decorative plants, he said.
The problem, he said, was not just the strength of Irma’s winds, which were at sustained topical-storm levels with hurricane-strength gusts, but the storm’s long reach and unusual duration.
“The wind was just continuous for what, 20 hours?” he said. “Not a lot can stand up to that.”
Irma’s impact on agriculture was hardly limited to Miami-Dade. Farther north, the state’s flagship agricultural product, oranges and other citrus crops, suffered “severe and devastating” losses, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said in a tweet. For consumers, that means prices will likely increase.
The one bright spot in South Miami-Dade, thanks to the storm’s timing, was that most of the area’s winter-vegetable farmers had not yet started planting, LaPradd said. But okra farmers, whose crops are planted earlier, appear to have suffered substantial losses, LaPradd and Alger said.
Sam Accursio, a vegetable farmer, said he was lucky. Irma did not cause much damage to his farm structures. But the storm postponed his plans to start planting by just a few days as he and his crews focused on cleaning up their homes and properties. On Thursday, Accursio started putting his winter crops of pickling cucumbers, snap beans and yellow and green squash in the ground.
“It was a messy storm,” he said. “We’re just cleaning up and getting back to normal.”
One thing that’s helped, some farmers said, has been rapid restoration of power to the farming region by Florida Power & Light. Electricity is critical for running pumps and irrigation systems.
But the picture was grim for avocado farmers who plant varieties that are harvested later in the growing season, as well as growers of Asian guavas for whom this is peak season, LaPradd said. Irma’s winds caused much of that fruit crop to drop from trees, rendering it unmarketable. While many avocado farmers are covered by federally backed insurance programs, those don’t cover all losses. Guavas generally do not qualify for those programs, LaPradd said. Damage to the fruit trees themselves also can mean reductions in crop yields for years after.
Some of the Redland’s famed orchid growers were also watchful and concerned. Irma blew away shade cloth that protects the delicate plants and flowers from the sun and damaged greenhouses at Motes Orchids. And while owner Martin Motes said he and his crews managed to jerry-rig protection, only a couple of companies are in the business of repairing greenhouses, and they’re already stretched thin, with waits of several weeks even before Irma.
“The greenhouse builders are going to be very, very busy folks. There will be a critical shortage of people repairing greenhouses,” he said.
Motes is also concerned that Irma’s winds might have damaged his plants. If leaves or stems break, that’s an entry point for fungal and bacterial infections that are at their peak in September and October.
But Motes also said it could have been a lot worse. Though the area that suffered the most damage was his breeding collection, those plants aren’t for sale, he noted.
“We’re putting it back together,” Motes said. “We consider ourselves very lucky.”