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Florida agriculture has been slammed by Hurricane Ian

Cliff Coddington inspects a young orange tree that's been uprooted by Hurricane Ian on a ranch he runs in Sarasota County, Fla.

SARASOTA COUNTY, Fla. - The gravel and dirt Turpentine Still Road leads to the Longino Ranch, established 1934. It's easy to miss the turn because the front sign is blown down in a ditch. It's among the tens of thousands of acres of Florida farmland in Ian's path.

"We're going to run up and look at some tree damage that's down, says ranch manager Cliff Coddington as he heads out in his pickup to see what Hurricane Ian left behind.

It requires driving through water that's still up to the truck's tire well more than a week after the hurricane. He says the ranch had as much as five feet of water in some places immediately after the storm.

This is a huge and diversified operation that includes cattle, timber, citrus, bee keeping, wildlife conservation, and sod farming on 9,000 acres in northeast Sarasota county. Hurricane Ian touched every corner.

"Power lines were down," Coddington says. "We still don't have power yet, but they got the lines back up, so it's getting closer."

A triage like situation

Pine trees are twisted and bent in half, metal roofs are ripped from barns, bee hives are toppled, and sprawling oaks are crashed atop fences. Coddington has been riding horseback to survey the 128-mile fence line – a task he says will take months.

"I know we might have at least ten miles [down] and probably more."

He says this ranch runs 1,200 mama cows, and most appear to have survived the storm.

Coddington is a 6th generation cowboy and past president of the Florida Cattleman's Association. The group used a nearby stockyard as a distribution center for emergency supplies like posts, barbed wire, chainsaw fuel, and hay.

The Florida Department of Agriculture is still gathering information on the extent of the widespread damage to farms and ranches, and is asking for a federal farm disaster declaration for 17 counties.

Jim Strickland, another 6th generation cattleman who has a neighboring ranch, says the scene here is playing out at cattle ranches all across this part of Florida.

"Right now, the first strategy - almost a triage situation - is we are going around our perimeter fences just to make certain that we fix every hole, every tree that's on that fence, to keep our cattle from getting out, from getting on the road, somebody getting hurt," says Strickland.

He says flooded pastures mean the grass is no longer good for grazing, and cattle that have been standing in water could lead to disease, including foot rot. And high water is lingering. Coddington says the south end of the Longino Ranch is not accessible.

"That is still underwater," he says. "There's no way I can get to it even on a horse. It's halfway up my boots."

Hard to survive

It's a bumpy ride out to the citrus groves because the water flow was so strong during Hurricane Ian that it carved deep ruts in the truck path that runs through the ranch. The wind damage is stark – row after row of orange and grapefruit trees are bent southward, stripped of fruit. Some of the younger trees are completely uprooted.

"Citrus got beat pretty hard," Coddington says. "All of our grapefruit crop is on the ground."

Coddington says this year's fruit crop is a total loss, and he estimates as much as 30% of the trees won't recover. Even before the storm, the USDA had predicted the Florida orange crop would be down by a third this year.

Coddington says this is yet another blow that comes at a bad time with farmers already under pressure because inflation has driven up the cost of doing business.

"It's been kind of hard to survive," he says. "And then you get one of these stomped on top of you. It makes it tough."

Coddington estimates it could take up to five years to fully recover from Hurricane Ian. It's like starting at square one.

"The first day or two after the storm, I was wondering whether I really wanted to start over again," he admits. "But it's in your blood to do it. And that's what we do."

After nine days with no power, he arrives back at the ranch office to a sign of progress as power crews test their repairs.

"Y'all good?" he asks.

"You the man," responds the crew leader with the Peace River Electric Cooperative. "You got lights!"

It's a crucial step on the long road to recovery. Coddington says Hurricane Ian won't knock down determined Florida ranchers.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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