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Hurricane Irma Destroys Southwest Florida's Agriculture Industry

Jessica Meszaros
UF agriculture extension agent in Hendry County Gene McAvoy taking pictures of flooded citrus groves. He's helping local growers and farmers document damages from Hurricane Irma.

Hurricane Irma destroyed farms and groves all around Hendry County. An agriculture expert says 78 percent of the adult population in Hendry works in the ag industry.  Irma damages will affect everyone from growers to grocery stores.

Credit Jessica Meszaros / WGCU News
To the left, a greenhouse is twisted and collapsed.

Vegetable Farm

University of Florida’s agriculture extension agent in Hendry County Gene McAvoy is driving farm-to-farm, taking notes on what damages Hurricane Irma caused.

"This was a traffic light hanging down there," says McAvoy as his car maneuvers around broken traffic lights, knocked down power lines, flooding and debris. He’s helping local growers document the destruction for insurance purposes and federal disaster assistance. He pulls up to Mobley Plant World in LaBelle. They grow baby vegetables for farmers.

"They removed the plastic from greenhouses before the storm hit to try to protect the metal structure, he says. "But you can also see even despite that, some of the structures collapsed.

McAvoy talks with the manager of Mobley Plant World Carol Howard. She says 19 out of 51 greenhouses are destroyed. She thinks a tornado did this.

"The way the damage is. It's different when it just falls down versus when you’ve got twisting and turning and everything of the trees as well as the greenhouses," she says. 

Howard says the last few days have been "hell."

"Because these are people's livelihoods in there and it hurts. And we've got employees that are displaced trying to come back and they’ve run out of money on the side of the roads because they can’t get gas," she says.

She usually has about 50 people working for her, but now she has to get about 75 to rebuild.

"The agriculture industry did not need this to happen to us," says Howard. "From the previous year that we had as far as bad prices, disease, everything from the previous year… they did not need that this year."

McAvoy jots down the damages, and then drives on to West Coast Tomato.

Credit Jessica Meszaros / WGCU News
Four weeks of laying down plastic destroyed by Hurricane Irma. Any tomatoes in the ground were washed away.

Tomato Farm

"They’d actually planted 25 or 30 acres of tomatoes and they had laid 525 acres of plastic," says McAvoy.

Sheets of plastic keep in fertilizer and chemical fumigants. McAvoy says these 525 acres of plastic alone is about a $1 million loss for this farm.

"All that's been washed away," he says. "Two days ago when I came here, this was a lake. This was totally underwater."

But now it looks like a smooth sandy beach. McAvoy says, "It looks like the tide went out."

Sergio Javier Soto is the general manager of West Coast Tomato. He says he tried using pumps to move the floodwater out of his tomato farm, but he says there was nowhere to put it because all the surrounding areas were also flooded.

He says he feels sad to see his farm like this.

"It’s like too many things in my head, like headache, you know? See everything, like I said, a week ago looks so nice and now just destroyed... everything," says Soto.

Now about 45 of his workers are sweating in the afternoon heat, dragging out all of the plastic to throw away and then start over again.

McAvoy drives to a couple different citrus groves in Hendry.

Credit Jessica Meszaros / WGCU News
Some split citrus trees are salvageable, but if the tear goes all the way down to the graft union, what will grow won't be the desired and designed fruit.

Citrus Groves

"We're headed to Martin Mason's citrus grove. Martin is a small farmer. He's got about a 40 acre grove here just west of LaBelle...We’re coming right up on the grove in question here," he says driving through the grove gates. 

"We're looking at orange trees that are about 5, 6 years old," says McAvoy. "They’re about 12 feet high. They have been split in two in some cases, some have been uprooted and if you look under the trees, you can see the majority of the fruit is under the tree and very little left on the tree."

He says this is what he's been seeing the last few days. 

"Probably average 70 percent of fruit on the ground. In some cases, a little better-- maybe 50 percent. I’ve seen some places where up to 90 percent of the fruit is on the ground," says McAvoy.

But he says this citrus grower is more fortunate than others because he did not get significant flooding. At another grove in Hendry, countless yellow grapefruits float and cluster underneath the citrus trees.

"The fruit that’s in the water, by federal drug administration rules, it's considered contaminated or adulterated and it cannot be used for food stuff even if it was ripe and ready," he says. "Some of these grapefruits actually are ripe or close to ripe and had they not been blown off would’ve been sellable.

Floating fruit is just the immediate loss. McAvoy says there’s also long-term affects to citrus trees that are flooded for more than 24 hours.

"The roots start to die and as they die different pathogenic fungi will come in and invade those roots and once the water is gone that infection is there and it's become systemic and you’ll be fighting that basically for years," he says.

McAvoy says it’s still early to know the total financial loss of agriculture in Southwest Florida, but he says he would not be surprised if it exceeded $2 billion.