LAKE WALES, Fla. -- Hurricane Irma dealt Florida's iconic orange crop a devastating blow, destroying nearly all the fruit in some Southwest Florida groves and seriously damaging groves in Central Florida.
Irma travelled through just south of Orlando to Lake Ockechobee, an area called Citrus Alley. Most of the oranges grown in Florida are in this area, and Irma's eye went right through it.
U.S. Senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio toured groves in Lake Wales on Wednesday and heard from growers, who pleaded for federal assistance.
The senators saw young fruit on the ground and trees split by wind. Growers talked of trees standing in 3 feet (.9 meters) of water, which is a death sentence for a crop already under a decade-long siege by citrus greening disease.
"Citrus is the crop that Florida's associated with and it's already facing significant challenges," said Rubio. "Economically, it's an enormous priority for the state. We wanted to make sure this didn't get lost in this broader relief effort."
Much of the fruit was young, and it's too late in the season to grow a new crop.
"We've had many hurricanes, we've had freezes, but this one is widespread," said Harold Browning with the Citrus Research and Development Foundation. "We're seeing the kind of damage we haven't seen, ever."
Statewide, fruit growers and farmers have just begun to assess Irma's impact on the state's citrus, sugar cane and vegetable crops - but they expect it will be significant.
Still unknown: How much damage the crops suffered, how much producers might recover from crop insurance and how much more people might pay for their morning orange juice.
Florida's orange harvest usually begins around Thanksgiving, and about 90 percent of it becomes juice. Projections for the 2016-2017 growing season had called for 68.5 million boxes of oranges and 7.8 million boxes of grapefruit. The orange crop was worth over $886 million, according to USDA figures, while the grapefruit crop was worth nearly $110 million.
"Before Hurricane Irma, there was a good chance we would have more than 75 million boxes of oranges on the trees this season; we now have much less," said Shannon Stepp, executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus. Initial reports indicate Irma's winds knocked a lot of fruit to the ground but uprooted relatively few trees.
Lisa Lochridge, a spokeswoman for the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, said reports indicate a 50 percent to 70 percent crop loss in South Florida, depending on the region, with losses "only slightly less going north." Joel Widenor, co-founder of Commodity Weather Group, forecast the overall orange crop loss at 10 percent and the grapefruit loss at 20 percent to 30 percent. He estimated sugar cane losses at 10 percent.
The sugar cane harvest was expected to begin Oct. 1. Producers had anticipated a "very good" crop of around 2.1 million tons, said Ryan Weston, CEO of the Florida Sugar Cane League. Aerial observations this week should start showing how much was knocked down, he said.
Florida is a key source of fresh fruits and vegetables for the nation in the winter. Lochridge said the tomato crop is expected to be light in early November, though officials expect a solid December. Strawberry growers expect to recover quickly and harvest on time, she said.
"A big concern for growers is finding available workers to help them in their recovery efforts," Lochridge said. "The labor supply was already very tight."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture will issue its first forecast for Florida's 2017-18 citrus crop Oct. 12. Citrus greening disease, which cuts yields and turns fruit bitter, has blighted the crop in past years. The harvest has fallen by more than 70 percent since the disease was discovered in Florida in 2005, Lochridge said, and the resulting higher prices for consumers haven't made up for the losses to growers.
Browning said the hurricane is like "an accelerant" on top of the devastating greening disease.
Frozen orange juice concentrate futures provide a glimpse at what might happen to consumer prices. They spiked last week as Irma bore down but slipped this week. Coca-Cola, whose brands include Minute Maid and Simply juices, said its juice operations are already back up and running.
Chet Townsend is editor of the Citrus Daily newsletter and also owns a five-acre grove near Fort Denaud in southwestern Florida. He got his first good look at the damage driving around his area Tuesday morning.
"I've never seen so much fruit down, even after a freeze," he said.
WLS-TV contributed to this report.
Irma devastates Florida orange crop, harms other produce
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