Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam H. Putnam and Gov. Rick Scott traveled to Washington Wednesday to meet with the state’s Congressional delegation to discuss agricultural damage caused by Hurricane Irma and to request federal assistance.
Meanwhile, Putnam and Florida Citrus Mutual questioned the USDA’s first citrus crop forecast of the season, released Oct. 12, a seemingly optimistic projection based on the fact that many Florida groves are still underwater and on one knows what the ultimate toll will be.
Putnam reiterated to Congressmen Oct. 11 the number released last week of preliminary damages to Florida ag of $2.5 billion, with Florida citrus absorbing the brunt of that blow to the tune of $760,816,600.
“The one area that doesn’t historically have a standing program of assistance is disaster assistance for agriculture…”
He also told the delegation a day ahead of the Oct. 12 citrus forecast, “I put zero stock in it, because there’s no way they have an accurate count of the estimate they’ll release tomorrow based on the continued damage that’s falling out from Hurricane Irma and the fact that they pulled their limb counters out of the groves at a time when they didn’t have an accurate picture of the long-term damage to the trees and to the crop.”
USDA on Oct. 12 projected a 2017-2018 citrus crop of 54 million boxes, highly unlikely given the extent of the damage to Florida’s crop.
Mutual, Florida’s largest citrus grower organization said the USDA forecast the U.S is well above the 31 million-box crop predicted by the results of its own grower damage survey.
Mutual believes the agency could not accurately account for the full extent of the catastrophic damage from Irma. Historically, USDA has a high margin of error in crop years with a natural disaster.
“I’m disappointed the USDA did not delay the traditional October crop estimate until more data could be collected to fully assess the damage wrought by Irma,” said Michael W. Sparks, executive VP/CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual. “Irma hit us just a month ago and although we respect the skill and professionalism of the USDA, there is no way they can put out a reliable number in that short time period.”
On Sept. 10, Irma moved through the center of the state hitting Florida’s major citrus producing regions with up to 120 mph winds. The hurricane blew fruit off the tree and caused widespread tree damage. A Mutual survey of growers conducted post-Irma pegged total fruit loss at more than 50 percent with some reports of 100 percent fruit loss in the Southwest part of the state.
The USDA makes its first estimate in October of each year and revises it monthly as the crop takes shape until the end of the season in July.
“The long-term effect of Irma on our industry will take years to sort out,” Sparks said. “We had groves underwater and those trees aren’t just going to bounce back and continue producing fruit. They are gone. Just like when the hurricanes hit in 2004-2005 and dramatically re-shaped out industry. Irma was a historic event that dealt Florida citrus a major blow.”
Putnam provided the Florida delegation with information about the rest of the state’s agricultural damage.
Here are some excerpts from Putnam’s remarks:
“The Florida delegation has a long history of coming together in the aftermath of these types of disasters and bringing the full weight of the third largest delegation in support of our state.
Florida Has Been “The Zebra Of American Agriculture…”
“We’re grateful for you being here and for your efforts on our behalf. Every single one of your districts has been impacted, if not by Irma, then by Nate and by the continued fallout of Hurricane Maria in ways that will continue to affect Florida.
“The one area that doesn’t historically have a standing program of assistance is disaster assistance for agriculture, for the things we grow in Florida. Florida agriculture has historically been the zebra of American agriculture. Most US ag policy is designed for Midwestern program crops.
“So dragon fruit, and jackfruit, and avocadoes in Homestead, and the citrus industry throughout the state, and the winter vegetable industry historically have not had the risk management tools or disaster assistance tools that other parts of US agricultural commodities have had, which is why we’re here.
“The simple ask is that disaster assistance for agriculture relief be included in the bill that’s moving this week. I know that’s a short turnaround, I know that’s a heavy lift, but time is of the essence for supporting growers who have between 50- and 100-percent of their crop on the ground.
“So this is a broad calamity for the second largest industry in the state. The preliminary economic reports peg the loss at $2.5 billion.
“You can stand in any orange grove in Florida right now and listen to the fruit hitting the ground like rainfall because of the longer-term damage that continues to play out. You can walk through any grove in Florida and smell the rot of fruit that was just weeks away from being harvested and, as the Governor said, for the first time in years may have been a larger crop than the year before.
“As it is today, the official crop estimate will come out tomorrow, and I put zero stock in it because there’s no way they have an accurate count of the estimate they’ll release tomorrow based on the continued damage that’s falling out from Hurricane Irma and the fact that they pulled their limb counters out of the groves at a time when they didn’t have an accurate picture of the long-term damage to the trees and to the crop.
“We’re looking at catastrophic losses across these commodities and so with that, I’ll close by saying our ask is that the bill that the House will take up this week that it include the $2.5 billion to be directed to the USDA for the USDA to then administer the program.”