Florida Agriculture Still Reeling From Irma Damage, Relief Sought


Most years attendees at the annual Farm-City Week luncheon at the South Florida Fairgrounds leave with a box full of locally-grown produce such as sweet corn, green beans, peppers and radishes.

At the annual event held Wednesday that didn’t happen. That’s because Hurricane Irma’s arrival Sept. 10 left Palm Beach County’s farms flooded and soggy, delaying planting.

More rain since then has exacerbated the situation, but crops, including the county’s famous sweet corn, are coming along. However, they will arrive in stores later than usual, growers said.

The lack of a take-home produce box is but a small example of the more than $2.5 billion in damage that Irma wreaked on every segment of Florida agriculture, from sugar cane fields to cattle ranches, nurseries and more.

Mike Joyner, Florida Assistant Commissioner of Agriculture, told 150 people at the event that Florida’s Congressional delegation has been working on a hurricane relief plan to help farmers and nursery growers to recover from their losses. The Office of Management and Budget is expected to issue an emergency funding proposal by the end of this week.

The state’s beleaguered citrus industry, already battered by greening disease, was hardest hit with more than $760 million in losses. The trees were laden with fruit when Irma arrived.

This season’s Florida orange crop, forecast at 50 million 90-pound boxes, is expected to be the smallest in 70 years. But once all the Irma damage is taken into account, Joyner said, “We’ll be lucky to get 40 million.”

Joyner said agriculture faces a number of major challenges, as it has for years, including pests and diseases, such as the citrus psyllid that spreads greening, water-related concerns and international trade issues.

While some might think Florida agriculture is dominated by large companies, Joyner said that 80 percent of the state’s 47,100 farms are family-owned.

Florida also stands out because of its agricultural diversity, producing more than 300 commodities, Joyner said. While water is essential to agriculture, farmers are conserving 11 billion gallons a year through new technology, Joyner said.

Agriculture officials said they have more to worry about than Irma, pests and diseases.

The North American Free Trade Agreement has harmed Florida growers as they have had to compete with cheap government-subsidized imports from Mexico sold at below the cost of production.

“We are are working with the Secretary of Commerce,” Joyner said. “At a minimum Mexico should have to abide by laws governing conditions of work, minimum wage, hours of work and occupational safety.”

Joyner said he doesn’t allow produce from Mexico in his house, and he urged consumers to look for the “Fresh from Florida” logo in stores.

John Hoblick, president, Florida Farm Bureau, said Farm-City Week was started in the 1950s as a celebration to bring farmers and the urban community together. Agriculture was in trouble then, with the nation having lost 1 million farms between 1950 and 1955.

Agriculture is the state’s second-largest industry with an economic impact of $120 billion Hoblick said, and Palm Beach County is one of the nation’s top agricultural counties.

Palm Beach County leads the nation and state in sugar cane and sod production and ranks first in the state in vegetable production as well. It’s known as the sweet corn capital of the world.

The Central Palm Beach County Chamber of Commerce hosted the event with the Western Palm Beach County Farm Bureau, Florida Farm Bureau and the South Florida Fair.