(Nov. 1) IMMOKALEE, Fla. — Grower-shippers report Hurricane Wilma damaged up to 80% or more of their crops when the storm roared through the southern half of the state Oct. 24. Buyers should expect to see much fewer supplies this fall season.

Tomato, cucumber, pepper and squash grower-shippers in the Immokalee, Belle Glade, Homestead and the East Coast growing regions report Wilma taking out as much as 80% of their production.

The storm hit the Indian River grapefruit growing region especially hard.

In its preliminary estimate, on Oct. 31 Lakeland-based Florida Citrus Mutual reported Wilma took out nearly half of the state’s grapefruit and 13% of the state’s orange crop. Overall, Wilma knocked out 17% of Florida’s citrus crop and caused a $180 million hit to the citrus crop.

“These are good preliminary figures that could increase as more damage is discovered and more growers calculate their losses,” said Casey Pace, the group’s director of public affairs.

Pace accompanied U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez and Rep. Mark Foley in a tour of grapefruit groves near Vero Beach Oct. 31.

In addition to the fruit on the ground, Pace said there was a lot of tree damage, including broken large limbs with downed trees on the outskirts of the groves.

Wilma knocked oranges to the ground in groves from a wide area stretching from the Immokalee and LaBelle growing region to the Indian River area. Fruit was also seen on the group as far north as Lake Wales.

Terrance McElroy, spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Tallahassee, said damage estimates of various commodities were still being compiled.

“There may be pockets here and there that are salvageable, but the bulk of it certainly seems lost,” he said Nov. 1.

Growers will have to replant, McElroy said. He said it will be January before Florida grower-shippers will be able to ship produce in large volumes again.

When Wilma hit, Homestead, growers had been working for two months to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina struck the growing region. Wilma hit the area hard, knocking pole beans to the ground, ripping plastic off of recently planted tomato fields and smashing other crops.

The Miami-Dade County Cooperative Extension estimates Homestead growers suffered $217 million in crop losses with $30 million in structural damages. The area had lost $427 million in crops and $200 millions in building damages after Hurricane Katrina, said Katie Edwards, executive director of the Dade County Farm Bureau.

“Our growers are resilient,” she said. “They’re disking and are trying to get back on schedule.”

Though electricity was returning to many production areas, some were still without power on Nov. 1, more than a week after the storm hit.

Theo Rumble, president of Fresh Start Produce Sales Inc., Delray Beach, the sales agent for Thomas Produce Co., Boca Raton, said Thomas Produce had power but his home remained without electricity on Nov. 1.

Electrical power was restored to Homestead Oct. 31, a week after the storm first struck, said Eric Torrese, co-owner of T-N-T Farms Inc., Homestead.

T-N-T was on half-power, Torrese said. The company had an electrician working to keep the lights from flickering.

Belle Glade packers were also cleaning up and surveying crop damage.

Brett Bergman, salesman for Hugh H. Branch Inc., Pahokee, said the company was assessing damage to its sweet corn and green beans crops Oct. 31.

“There has been widespread damage,” he said. “But what’s there and what’s not there, we’re not sure. We have to give the plants a chance to grow out and dry out.”

Wilma ripped off a lot of metal roofs from Belle Glade and Immokalee packing sheds.

Power was restored to Immokalee on Oct. 28, shippers report.