(Sept. 9) VERO BEACH, Fla. — Florida citrus officials were attempting to assess the extent of damage to one of the state’s richest growing regions late last week in the wake of Hurricane Frances.

Because of poor communications, initial reports on citrus damage were difficult to assess, said Casey Pace, public affairs director for Lakeland-based Florida Citrus Mutual, but estimates are high.

John Wetzig, director of the Orlando-based Florida Agricultural Marketing Service, said the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s first citrus forecast for the season is still scheduled to be released Oct. 12.

“We had to revise our plans once before (after Hurricane Charley) and then again,” Wetzig said. “Hopefully, we won’t have to adjust our plans again.”

Growers said the damage was heavy and widespread, but published reports put speculation on grapefruit losses at between 60% and 80% and overall citrus at under 80%.

“I can’t put a percentage on it, but it was a significant crop loss,” said Mark Sanchez, executive vice president and general manager of Sun Ag Inc., Fellsmere. “The next week to 10 days will be important as far as fruit drop, especially grapefruit.”

Frances came ashore Sept. 4 near Fort Pierce, with winds in excess of 115 mph just three weeks after Charley struck the state’s southwestern coast, moved inland and destroyed an estimated 20% of the state’s citrus crop.

Between the two hurricanes, more than 500,000 acres of citrus groves have been hit by damaging winds and rain, according to Florida Citrus Mutual.

“The impact of both storms is pretty severe,” said Dan Gunter, executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus. “The extent of the losses are real difficult to estimate.”

To offset the loss of Florida fruit this season, some industry officials are suggesting additional imports from Mexico and Spain may be necessary to fill the void.

“I imagine there will be some substitution,” Bruce McEvoy, president of Seald Sweet LLC, Vero Beach, said as he boarded a plane in South Africa. “That’s why I’m heading home now.”

Greg Nelson, president of DNE World Fruit Sales, Fort Pierce, said tangerines from Mexico and Spain might fill some of the void but that won’t be the case for grapefruit and oranges.

“Florida grapefruit is not replaceable with fruit from Spain or Mexico,” he said. “California and Texas will have grapefruit, just not the quantities. As far as oranges, California will probably take care of that. The only one I see that happening with is easy peelers (tangerines).”

Frances did most of its damage with 115 mph winds that knocked fruit from trees and pelted the area with more than 13 inches of rain, resulting in widespread flooding to groves.

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Charles Bronson said there was particular concern about Florida’s grapefruit industry, which represents about 75% of U.S. production. Two of the hardest hit counties were St. Lucie and Indian River, which account for about 70% of the state’s 105,000 acres of grapefruit production.

About 40% of Florida’s grapefruit production and about 5% of its oranges go to the fresh market.

In addition to dropped fruit, growers were concerned about flooding, which causes root rot to trees within 72 hours. Water had gone down some as of Sept. 9, but many trees were still engulfed in water.

Florida’s vegetable growers reportedly fared much better.

With the exception of Fort Pierce-based Big Red Tomato Packers, which sustained heavy damage to its recently planted crop, most of the state escaped major problems.

John Taylor of Taylor & Fulton Inc., Palmetto, said there were a small number of young plants that were rolled over by the wind but overall no serious damage.

Farther north, potato growers in Hastings, also escaped damage.

“Luckily those folks have not planted yet or their plants were not in a position to get hurt,” said Ray Gilmer, director of public affairs for the Orlando-based Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association.

Gilmer said there was one report of damage to a vegetable grower in Florida’s panhandle.

Gilmer said the FFVA has estimated the damage from Frances at $30 million for vegetables only, which is in addition to the $29 million it estimated for vegetable damage related to Charley.

Relief efforts are under way through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and additional funding was expected late last week.

President Bush said he would seek additional federal funding to help residents rebound from the devastation of Frances but the extent of the aid was not determined as of Sept. 9.

Bush signed a bill Sept. 8 extending an additional $2 billion to FEMA, which will funnel an additional $225 million to agriculture, Pace said.

Vegetable growers that had prepared fields but not planted are not covered by federal crop insurance for hurricane damage. The FFVA is working with federal officials to cover those losses, Gilmer said.

To provide immediate aid to Florida’s agricultural industry after Charley, Bush directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to compensate citrus and vegetable growers with existing budget funds for lost crops and trees and ordered other agencies to help with the housing needs of migrant workers.

Additionally, proceeds from the FFVA’s annual benefit auction Sept. 28 in Naples, Fla., will benefit farmworkers displaced by the two hurricanes.

The effort began following Charley’s destruction to farmworker housing in DeSoto, Hardee and Polk counties, and has been extended to include losses from Frances.

Floridians take stock of damage from Frances
Hurricane Frances covered almost the entire state of Florida at noon Sept. 5.