Business Monday

Crops for the season were looking good — until Irma delivered big trouble

A truck drives through a flooded field in an agricultural area after Hurricane Irma passed through the area on Sept. in Homestead, Florida.
A truck drives through a flooded field in an agricultural area after Hurricane Irma passed through the area on Sept. in Homestead, Florida. Getty Images

Hurricane Irma dealt a serious blow to the agriculture industry in South Florida. Local damage estimates are still being calculated, but initial figures put it at around $250 million in Miami-Dade County alone. It’s too early to tell what the price of the storm will be for Palm Beach County farmers. The sugarcane harvest begins this month and crop loss will become more apparent. Agriculture in Broward is much smaller, and no figures for losses there are available.

The loss to agriculture across Florida totals $2.6 billion, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

Overcome by almost $800 million in losses from the hurricane, the state’s citrus industry is suddenly facing its lowest orange yield in 75 years, far worse than forecasts expected just a couple of months ago. Groves and trees in Southwest Florida were especially hard-hit.

Early estimates suggest that this year’s crop will be the single lowest yield since the 1940s.

But the second-largest hit from Irma is among nurseries. And then sugar. Those two are concentrated in South Florida with the cane fields in Palm Beach County and hundreds of acres of shade houses and greenhouses in south Miami-Dade County.

The storm interrupted the business of farming but not the inherent optimism making a living from Mother Nature in South Florida requires. WLRN-Miami Herald News spoke with five farmers with decades of experience about what Irma did to their businesses and the agriculture industry here.

THE NURSERYMAN

Mark Wilson won’t begin his semi-retirement next May as he planned. The damage to his family-owned Greendale Nursery in Homestead took care of that. He was going to buy a recreational vehicle in March. Then in late May, “I was just going to go up the East Coast of the United States to Canada and dine on lobsters,” he said. Unfortunately, I think that it’s going to have to be, for practical reasons, deferred.”

MARK WILSON
Mark Wilson’s shade houses at Greendale Nursery in Homestead were destroyed or heavily damaged by Hurricane Irma.

Wilson estimates 80 percent of his shade houses were damaged or destroyed. About four acres of plants were sucked up by what he thinks was a tornado spawned by Irma.

“Basically the storm just took it away,” he said, standing among the debris of torn shade cloth and bent support poles. “It’s probably somewhere in the Everglades or in Georgia. This house, when we came in here, it was empty.”

The losses at Wilson’s Greendale Nursery are part of the estimated $625 million in losses suffered by Florida’s nurseries because of Irma. That includes plants and infrastructure like shade houses. The Florida Department of Agriculture says portions of western Miami-Dade County experienced Category 3 hurricane winds — between 111 and 129 miles per hour.

“This is a big hit. Eighty percent of your equity just had a value of zero. I was calling on some of that to live off of in retirement,” he said.

THE AVOCADO GROWER

Before Salvador Fernandez was responsible for the fruits and vegetables at J&C Tropicals in southwest Miami-Dade, he spent time developing video games for the Latin American market in the mid-1990s. He says he worked on games like “Quake 2,” a science fiction first-person shooter game where the player has to prevent an alien invasion of Earth.

SALVADOR FERNANDEZ
Salvador Fernandez with J&C Tropicals stands among the fallen and dead avocados in a grove of trees damaged by Hurricane Irma. One avocado still hangs. Most of his crop was ruined. Tom Hudson

His reality now includes acres of damaged or destroyed avocado groves and losing almost an entire late-season crop.

In one 20-acre grove alone, he estimates 400 trees were knocked over or uprooted by the storm. Irma’s winds came in parallel to the rows and rows of trees, snapping branches and cleaving some in half. But most were tilted over or toppled over altogether.

When the trees came down, their roots snapped irrigation pipes and sprinklers.

It is nearly impossible to walk the grove without stepping on overripened Florida avocados littering the ground. Those avocados were about to be harvested before Irma arrived.

“Typically, right now I would have about 20 to 40 employees working double shifts. This is Florida’s tropical season,” he said. “Right now, I have six employees. I have to lay off everybody else. I have no product.”

He figures it will cost $40,000 in labor to reset the fallen trees of this one grove, which is only half of the avocado crop grown by J&C Tropicals. And even then, it may take up to five years before any of those trees, assuming they survive, bear fruit again.

The University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences estimates about 3,500 acres of late-season avocado trees in Miami-Dade were waiting to be harvested before Irma. About half of the avocado trees suffered some damage or were destroyed by the storm.

“The market was very healthy this season. The crop was very healthy this season. There were no major issues. So we were expecting to have a good income season for a change. That’s not going to happen now,” Fernandez said.

THE SUGARCANE FARMER

Rick Roth may be a freshman Republican statehouse member, but he has been growing sugarcane in western Palm Beach County all his life. Roth is president of Roth Farms, where he farms sugarcane, rice and vegetables.

RICK ROTH
Rick Roth inspects damaged sugarcane fields in Palm Beach County.

The University of Florida estimates about 300,000 acres of sugarcane around Lake Okeechobee were impacted by Irma’s strong winds. The western half of Palm Beach County — the agricultural area — experienced Category 2 and 3 winds during the storm. The gusts and sustained blows laid down cane stalks causing them to begin propagating early, which may hurt how much sugar they produce. More badly damaged stalks snapped off at ground level.

“The good news is the damage is not nearly as bad as it was in Wilma,” Roth said. “But what did happen with Wilma, which is going to happen with this storm, is you’re going to have poor crops being planted because sugarcane is not a one-year crop. It’s a multiyear crop. Everything that you plant this year is going to have lower standards.”

Roth said his operation would plant less than half the acres of sugarcane next year than it usually does. It will increase its acreage in the years to come, hoping to make up for the lost production.

“We decided we’re just going to take our hit this year and maybe a little bit next year and then hopefully our average will come back up.”

THE OAK TREE GROWER

John Alger’s 250 acres of palm and oak trees in Homestead represent the smallest portion of his farming business, which includes sweet corn and snap beans. But those 250 acres bring in the second-highest amount of revenue, after the sweet corn, for his business.

JOHN ALGER
In Homestead, John Alger has been staking many of his storm-damaged oak trees in hopes of saving them.

He estimates 85 percent of his trees suffered some type of damage from Irma, especially the oak trees lining groves just north of the Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“You knock a tree down like [an oak tree] and stand it back up, it’s going to take six to eight months before it is stable enough to sell,” he said. “We’re looking at six to eight months of very few sales. It’ll throttle your cash flow in a hurry.”

Alger usually has a crew of 15 workers, but he has brought in 20 more to drive rebar supports into the soil to re-stake his oak trees. The extra labor and materials will add about $15 per tree to Alger’s cost.

“Obviously, we’re wounded. We’re very wounded. There will be very little income for at least six months off the tree farm, but your expenses are through the roof. A farmer needs to be chronically optimistic or else you’re not in this business. You can be accused of being a very slow learner.”

THE PALM TREE GROWER

Ben Magrill used to scare off blackbirds with a shotgun and race tractors on the land in Pahokee where he now grows palm trees. Magrill owns Pahokee Palms and he says a “large percentage” of his small and medium-sized trees were blown over.

BEN MAGRILL
Ben Magrill inspects his groves at Pahokee Palms. Many of his small and medium-sized trees were uprooted in the storm. TOM HUDSON

He and his company have weathered tropical storms and floods, hurricanes and high winds, housing booms and busts.

“This one was different,” Magrill said. “In the past, typically more of my big trees go down. This time, a lot of the big trees didn’t go down, but a lot of the younger trees that really aren’t for sale yet are laying on the ground or [standing] at a good angle.”

Magrill and a crew of 25 workers have been staking the palm trees in an effort to straighten them and keep them alive. Crooked palms fetch lower prices, if they sell at all. But the market may be more forgiving because of the size of Hurricane Irma.

After seeing his sales plummet immediately after the storm, Magrill said business has been returning. “In the past when we’ve had a hurricane, it’s usually isolated, but everybody got hurt in this storm. A tree that I could never sell three months ago because the fronds are torn up or it’s missing fronds, shockingly, people are buying some of them.”

Tom Hudson hosts ‘The Sunshine Economy’ on WLRN-FM; @HudsonsView.

How Irma hurt Florida agriculture

This shows an early summary by the state (as of Oct. 4) of the estimated losses to Florida’s agricultural sectors, accounting for the loss in current year crop production, as well as the associated losses to direct, on-farm inputs and related infrastructure.

Citrus: 29.7%

Nursery: 24.4%

Sugar:

15%

Forestry: 10.2%

Beef cattle: 9.3%

Fruits and vegetables: 7%

Other: 4.4%

Source: Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services

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