So much for this being the year the state’s citrus industry rebounded.
According to government figures released Thursday, orange growers in Florida are expected to harvest 54 million boxes – each weighs 90 pounds – during the 2017-18 season, the fewest since 1947.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s report came a month after Hurricane Irma tore through much of the state, only weeks before harvest.
“The path of Hurricane Irma could not have been more lethal than what it was,” Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said.
Irma caused an estimated $2.5 billion in damage to agriculture, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services reported this month, including nearly $761 million to the citrus industry.
Much of Florida’s crop goes toward the production of orange juice, though some is for the fresh market.
Citrus growers in Manatee County certainly felt the effects of Irma, although not nearly to the extent of other parts of the state.
Gary Bradshaw, president of SMR Farms, recently told the Bradenton Herald that the storm blew an estimated 10 percent of the fruit off citrus trees at Lakewood Ranch.
“We had a pretty good orange crop (going) this year,” he said.
Hardest hit were Collier and Hendry counties, with more than 94,000 acres hit by hurricane-force winds during Irma, according to Florida Department of Agriculture figures. Next were Lee, Brevard, Glades, Charlotte, St. Lucie, Highlands, Indian River, Okeechobee, DeSoto, Hardee and Osceola counties, totaling nearly 255,000 acres that experienced hurricane-force winds.
Also, Irma dropped as much as 17 inches of rain on many citrus-growing areas within a 24-hour period, making it impossible for farmers to reach their groves, with trees destroyed and fruit dropping to the ground before being harvested, the USDA said.
The path of Hurricane Irma could not have been more lethal than what it was.
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam
Before Irma hit, the state was expecting to harvest more than 75 million boxes worth of oranges, according to the Florida Department of Citrus. Earlier this week, the Florida Citrus Mutual estimated the crop would come in around 31 million boxes.
On Thursday, Michael Sparks, the vice president and CEO of Lakeland-based Florida Citrus Mutual, said he was “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.”
“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,” Sparks said.
Gene McAvoy, an agriculture expert with the University of Florida, told CNBC that citrus losses are averaging about 70 percent statewide. But in some areas across the southern part of Florida, losses could approach 90 percent, since that’s where the hurricane made landfall and winds were strongest.
“As you move north in the state, it goes lower,” McAvoy said.
Last week, Florida Gov. Rick Scott announced the Citrus Emergency Loan Program, a $25 million program to relieve growers affected physically or economically by Hurricane Irma.
The bridge loan program will provide interest-free loans to growers and be managed by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.
The impact from Hurricane Irma was the latest blow for an ailing industry, as a bacterial disease known as citrus greening that attacks and eventually kills trees has been plaguing Florida growers for years.
Prior to Irma’s arrival, the state’s citrus industry had experienced a 75 percent drop in production because of the incurable disease that has infected nearly all of Florida’s commercial groves.