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Hurricane Ian hit Florida’s citrus growers when they were already down

Oranges Hurricane Ian Gabriella Paul
Gabriella Paul
/
WUSF Public Media
Early variety fruit, like Hamlin oranges, were the most vulnerable when Hurricane Ian blew through citrus groves in south central Florida counties.

Growers in parts of Polk, Highlands, Hardee and DeSoto counties report that Ian claimed from 50 to 90 percent of their citrus crops. Before the storm, the state’s citrus harvest was already expected to be the lowest since 1935.

Laine Daum walks a row of Hamlin oranges at his family’s citrus grove in Lake Placid.

To survey the damage, he steps over a sea of still-green oranges pooling beneath the trees.

“Most of the fruit is on the ground,” he said. “Even the fruit that’s starting to color up – they’re gonna fall to the ground.”

Near-ripened fruit, like Hamlin oranges that are typically grown earlier in the season, were the most vulnerable to damage when hurricane-force winds ripped through the grove. Daum said his tangerines were already halfway harvested.

“I’ll speculate we’re going to lose about 70 to 80 percent of our overall crop of early-variety fruit,” Daum said.

Citrus damage Hurricane Ian Laine Daum Gabriella Paul
Gabriella Paul
/
WUSF Public Media
Laine Daum inspects an orange tree that was damaged by hurricane-force winds.

Hurricane Ian devastated citrus groves as it barreled through the heart of Florida after making landfall on the coast with sustained winds of 150 mph. It uprooted trees and ripped fruit from branches. And in some cases, Ian left groves under three feet of water after dumping several inches of rain across the center of the state.

The damage came during a year when Florida was already expected to produce its lowest citrus harvest in more than eight decades.

Early assessments predict the state suffered at least $1.56 billion in agricultural losses from Ian, with more than $300 million hitting the citrus industry alone.

And those numbers will likely go up, according to Florida Department of Citrus officials.

The assessment, conducted by the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, primarily accounts for damage to the fruit itself. In the coming days, damage to citrus trees and other infrastructure will come into focus, too.

“Most farmers do, in a sense, live paycheck to paycheck,” he said. “You won’t see that money until they pick up the fruit and put it in a box.”
-Laine Daum, third-generation Florida citrus grower

On the ground, growers in parts of Polk, Highlands, Hardee and DeSoto counties are reporting that Ian claimed between 50 to 90 percent of their citrus crop.

Without a profitable crop, Daum said he and other growers will be in a tight spot next season.

“Most farmers do, in a sense, live paycheck to paycheck,” he said. “There's typically one – maybe two – payments a year, and that's after harvest. You won’t see that money until they pick up the fruit and put it in a box.”

Ian undercuts Florida’s citrus forecast

Two weeks after the storm, Daum was among 300 citrus growers who gathered from around the state for the annual crop estimate in Hardee County.

“This is sort of an annual tradition – the kickoff to our season,” Florida Citrus Mutual CEO Matt Joyner said.

Every year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture releases a live prediction of how many 90-pound boxes of citrus are expected to be harvested, by state, in the upcoming season.

Ahead of the forecast, the smell of fresh cut grass and barbecue hung in the air at Putnam Ranch.

Senator Marco Rubio addressed the crowd first, calling Ian’s destruction “nothing short of biblical,” and praising the important role citrus plays in Florida’s heritage.

The crowd – huddled under a large, white tent – leaned in to hear: “Florida, 28 million boxes.”

The crowd quieted, in disbelief.

The state of Florida citrus 

The 2022-2023 citrus forecast is the lowest projected harvest since 1935 – and that’s before the state accounts for damages caused by Hurricane Ian.

“That’s tough,” said Florida Department of Citrus director Shannon Shepp. “For some context, we did just about 41 million boxes of oranges last year. And for a little more context, back in 2004, we did about 240 million boxes.”

Fifth-generation grower, Justin Hood, remembers the days when “growing citrus was pretty easy.”

Today, growers are spending more money per acre on pesticides to combat the effects of citrus greening – and still producing less fruit. Citrus greening is an insect-borne bacteria that has plagued citrus trees since the early 2000s – weakening trees and diminishing fruit production.

“These inputs are so significant – so high – from what we dealt with in the past, you know?” Hood said. “The risk-to-reward ratio in citrus right now is tremendous.”

Meanwhile, competition from citrus-producing countries, like Brazil and Mexico, is on the rise.

Beyond the grove 

Shrinking margins plus the added damage from Ian will create tough decisions for growers.

Ray Royce heads up the growers association in Highlands County, where he says the damage from Hurricane Ian will be felt beyond the grove.

“In our county, there's going to be a tremendous economic impact that may well be losing $40, $50 million worth of fruit,” he said. “And that money won't go into the economy – and growers are going to have to make decisions as to what they can and can't afford to do.”

That might include decisions like whether or not to hire seasonal workers to pick fruit come harvest or when and how to replant damaged trees, which can take up to five years to produce a decent crop.

To make ends meet, many growers take out loans, lines of credit or run through savings to finance upfront production costs – and then bank on their harvest to get them back in the black.

Without a profitable crop this season, the setbacks could be felt for years to come.

Despite the grim outlook, Shepp said Florida citrus growers aren’t deterred.

“They've been doing it for generations. They don't walk away. They are resilient to the point of draining their savings if they have to. Some of these guys are as down as they've ever been.”

What hangs in the balance

Laine Daum drives his silver Ford F250 through his family’s grove, a 250-acre plot growing two varieties of oranges and tangerines. Not long ago, his family managed 1,500 acres of citrus and farm land.

In recent years, Daum has seen smaller, family-run operations forced to sell to land developers or consolidate with bigger growers.

He said Hurricane Ian hit growers when they were already down.

“At this point, it’s gonna be up to insurance, and hopefully the federal government, to step in and keep us in business.”

He parks his truck – but leaves it running – to inspect a row of “Hamlins” that his grandfather planted. He thinks his family’s grove will recover from the storm.

He’s less certain about the future of Florida’s citrus industry.

“It's a part of my life. It's a part of who I am. It's part of who my family is,” he said. “And it would be sickening to see that go away.”

Gabriella Paul covers the stories of people living paycheck to paycheck in the greater Tampa Bay region for WUSF. She's also a Report for America corps member. Here’s how you can share your story with her.

I tell stories about living paycheck to paycheck for public radio at WUSF News. I’m also a corps member of Report For America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.