Florida's $2.5 billion request for federal disaster relief for its agriculture industry after Hurricane Irma might not be enough.
Members of the House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness said Thursday month-old damage estimates made by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Service are too low.
“I actually think your numbers are conservative,” said Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a Coral Springs Democrat who called for a bipartisan letter to Congress supporting the emergency disaster relief that has been requested by Gov. Rick Scott and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. “I think you're probably looking at over $1 billion in damages to the citrus industry.”
In an estimate of damages on Oct. 4, the state department projected citrus losses at $761 million from the September storm, followed by the nursery industry at almost $624 million.
The cattle industry damage assessment was $237.5 million, while the dairy industry was estimated to have $11.8 million in losses.
The sugar industry appeared to have $383 million in damage, with an estimated 534,324 acres affected. Vegetable and fruit growers --- excluding citrus --- were projected to have $180 million in damage, with an estimated 163,679 acres impacted by the storm.
Grace Lovett, the department's legislative affairs director, told the committee Thursday the $2.5 billion estimate included infrastructure, equipment and other items beyond crop damages. However, she noted that the department has noticed a number of trends, such as a slowdown in the movement of produce trucks.
“What they are seeing so far is staggering,” Lovett said. “September produce shipments from Florida were 76 percent lower than their average over the previous four years.”
Rep. Ben Albritton, a Wauchula Republican who is a citrus grower, said the numbers will grow because storm-damaged fruit continues drop from the trees.
“It's like a disease in a way,” Albritton said, adding, Irma “beat it up so bad that the connection between the fruit and the stem is weakened.”
He added that growers who saw damages of more than 70 percent may find harvesting costs outweigh the return on sales.
Albritton said growers who have lost 80 to 90 percent of their crops essentially have a total loss.
“You can't afford to harvest 10 or 15 percent,” he said.
Albritton suggested the committee, which is expected to roll out post-storm legislative proposals in December, consider state and local tax reductions for the industry.
Jim Handley, executive vice president of the Florida Cattlemen's Association, suggested the state consider opening some of its publicly owned land for commercial cattle ranching to help the industry.
“I know of properties that could be grazed,” Handley said. “The land would be better off, and it would expand our footprint.”
A week ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reduced its Florida citrus-harvest forecast for the current growing season, projecting there will be 27 percent fewer oranges and 40 percent fewer grapefruit than during the past season.
Mike Sparks, executive vice president of Florida Citrus Mutual, said the industry, which has been struggling the past decade with citrus greening disease, had been hoping for a slight rebound in terms of production.
Before the storm, the industry was hoping for about 10 percent growth from the past season, which would still be nearly 40 percent off where the industry needs to be to ensure sustainability, Sparks said. Â
But the “optimism certainly came to an immediate end” with Irma, Sparks said. Irma, which made landfall Sept. 10 in Monroe and Collier counties and raced up the state, caused heavy damage in major citrus-growing areas.
A series of hurricanes in 2004 and 2005 caused the industry to lose 44 percent of the crop.
“This damage is even worse,” Sparks said. “We had fruit not only blown off the trees, but trees in standing water for days.”
Gov. Rick Scott has asked state lawmakers to include $21 million in the next budget to help citrus growers. Scott wants the money to include $10 million for citrus research, $4 million for marketing and $7 million for post-storm relief.