Irma's big blow to Florida's crops

Florida fruit growers and farmers have just barely begun to assess the damage Hurricane Irma wrought on the state's citrus, sugar cane and vegetable crops -- but they expect it will be significant.

With power and communications still out across much of Florida, officials said Tuesday that getting a full picture will take weeks. What remains unknown: Exactly how much damage the crops suffered, how much producers might recover from crop insurance and how much more people might pay for their morning orange juice.

"Irma went right up the middle. It didn't matter where you were, because Irma was so wide," said Mark Hudson, the Florida state statistician with the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Extension and Farm Service Agency agents have just started evaluating the losses, he said, "if they can get fuel and if they can get out."

Florida's orange harvest usually begins around Thanksgiving, and about 90 percent of it becomes juice. Projections for the 2016-2017 growing season had called for 68.5 million boxes of oranges and 7.8 million boxes of grapefruit. The orange crop was worth over $886 million, according to USDA figures, while the grapefruit crop was worth nearly $110 million.

"Before Hurricane Irma, there was a good chance we would have more than 75 million boxes of oranges on the trees this season, we now have much less," said Shannon Stepp, executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus. Initial reports indicate Irma's winds knocked lot of fruit to the ground but uprooted relatively few trees, which will help growers in the long term.

Lisa Lochridge, a spokeswoman for the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, said reports indicate a 50 percent to 70 percent crop loss in South Florida, depending on the region, with losses "only slightly less going north." Joel Widenor, co-founder of Commodity Weather Group, forecast the overall orange crop loss at 10 percent and the grapefruit loss at 20 percent to 30 percent. He estimated sugar cane losses at 10 percent.

The sugar cane harvest was expected to begin Oct. 1. Producers had anticipated a "very good" crop of around 2.1 million tons, said Ryan Weston, CEO of the Florida Sugar Cane League. Aerial observations this week should start showing how much was knocked down, he said.

Florida is a key source of fresh fruits and vegetables for the rest of the country in the winter. In many cases those crops aren't in the ground yet, or it's early enough to replant. But particularly for tomatoes and strawberries, Lochridge said, some fields about to be planted were damaged. So she said the tomato crop is expected to be light in early November, though officials expect a solid December. Strawberry growers expect to recover quickly and harvest on time, she said.

"A big concern for growers is finding available workers to help them in their recovery efforts," Lochridge said. "The labor supply was already very tight."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will issue its first forecast of Florida's 2017-18 citrus crop on Oct. 12. The state's industry has been decimated in past years by citrus greening disease, which cuts yields and turns fruit bitter. The harvest has fallen by more than 70 percent since the disease was discovered in Florida in 2005, Lochridge said, and the resulting higher prices for consumers haven't made up for the losses to growers.

Frozen orange juice concentrate futures, which provide a glimpse at what might happen to consumer prices, spiked last week as Irma bore down but slipped this week. Coca-Cola (KO), whose brands include Minute Maid and Simply juices, said its juice operations are already back up and running.

Chet Townsend, editor of the Citrus Daily newsletter who also owns a five-acre grove near Fort Denaud in southwestern Florida, got his first good look at the damage driving around his area Tuesday morning.

"I've never seen so much fruit down," he said, "even after a freeze."