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Florida's Farmers Look At Irma's Damage: 'Probably The Worst We've Seen'

Fallen fruit sits on the ground below orange trees in Frostproof, Fla., U.S. Hurricane Irma destroyed almost half of the state's citrus crop.

When the worst of Irma's fury had passed, Gene McAvoy hit the road to inspect citrus groves and vegetable fields. McAvoy is a specialist on vegetable farming at the University of Florida's extension office in the town of LaBelle, in the middle of one of the country's biggest concentrations of vegetable and citrus farms.

It took a direct hit from the storm. "The eyewall came right over our main production area," McAvoy says.

The groves of orange and grapefruit were approaching harvest. But after Irma blew through, it left "50 or 60 percent of the fruit lying in water [or] on the ground," says McAvoy. Many trees were standing in water, a mortal danger if their roots stay submerged for longer than three or four days.

About a quarter of the country's sugar production comes from fields of sugar cane near Lake Okeechobee, east of LaBelle. Harvest season for the sugar cane crop is only a few weeks away, but Irma knocked much of the cane down, making it more difficult to harvest. "We won't know the exact extent of the loss until it's harvested," McAvoy says.

Fortunately for vegetable farms, the storm hit before most of those fields in his area had been planted. The ones that were planted — perhaps 10 percent of them — were "a total loss," he says. Even unplanted fields sustained damage; before planting, growers typically prepare the fields by covering low rows with plastic to apply fertilizer and pesticides. Irma's winds tore that plastic away.

"It's probably the worst hurricane that we've ever seen," McAvoy says, although he says Wilma, in 2005, was nearly as damaging.

"It's just not a good day in Florida today," says Lourdes Villanueva, who works with the Redlands Christian Migrant Association, which provides services for farm workers in the state. Villanueva says the storm destroyed many trailers and other houses where workers live. "The ones where the roof didn't go, trees fell on them," she says.

Farm workers often live in the most low-quality and vulnerable housing, she says. Some families have been left homeless. Other structures are empty at the moment, because most migrant farm workers still are working in the north, harvesting fall crops like apples. Florida's growers will need those workers soon, says Villanueva, but "will they want to come here if there's no housing?"

Farming communities living farther north, or outside Irma's path, fared better. Justin Sorrells, a citrus producer in Arcadia, Fla., says that farmers in his area lost a "minimal" amount of fruit, although he's worried the flooding still could damage many trees.

The state's citrus industry has been shrinking because of citrus greening disease, but it still accounts for about half of the country's production.

Florida's strawberry crop, meanwhile, wasn't yet planted. Kenneth Parker, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association, says that the storm destroyed some of the plastic that's been laid down on strawberry fields in advance of planting, but growers will be able to make repairs and plant on schedule, starting in a couple of weeks. "These [strawberry growers] are so resilient, they're going to do what it takes to get the job done," he says.

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