On the Monday morning after Hurricane Irma stomped through Southwest Florida, Nicole Kozak and Manny Cruz stood on their front porch and surveyed the damage to their farm. The couple has owned Circle C since 2012, and they specialize in humanely raised and harvested poultry, beef and pork. They sell their meats, eggs and honey directly to local restaurants and to the public at their farm store in Bonita Springs. The morning after Irma, their 130 acres in Felda were in a state of devastation. The property’s 14 buildings had been reduced to three. The aluminum brooders that housed their 2-day-old chicks were crumpled like tin foil. All 4,900 of the chicks were dead. The barns for the sheep and pigs had both collapsed, and their tractor had lost part of its front end. Like many farmers, ranchers and growers in Southwest Florida on that Monday morning, Cruz and Kozak turned to each other and wondered how they would start over.
“The impact on agriculture was huge,” says Gene McAvoy, director of the Hendry County Extension Office for the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and the regional vegetable extension agent. “Southwest Florida took the brunt of the damage.”
The Extension Service and the Florida Department of Agriculture estimate the statewide damage to the agriculture industry from Irma to be $2.5 billion. The citrus industry is estimated to have lost 70 percent of 2017’s crop, and damaged and uprooted trees will result in future losses. About 5,000 acres of planted tomatoes, peppers, herbs, cucumbers, watermelons and squash were destroyed, and 15,000 acres of plastic mulching was ripped up, taking irrigation lines with it. The sugar cane crop was laid flat by winds, and although the stalks eventually stood back up, mechanical harvesters are unable reach the lower part of the stalk lying on the ground. This will translate to a 10 to 20 percent loss in the year’s harvest. In addition, sucrose yields are down by a substantial amount on some blocks. More than 5,000 beehives were destroyed, in part by flooding and in part by bacteria that got into the hives and killed the bees after the flood waters receded.
“It was a major, major blow,” McAvoy says. “It’s going to take several years to recover, especially in the inland communities like Immokalee, Clewiston and Palmdale where a majority of the adult population works in agriculture. If you lose 70 percent of the oranges, then people who pick oranges aren’t going to have a lot of work this year. That’s going to impact everybody, from the grocery store to the county government. Even places like Fort Myers. When a rancher or grower in Hendry County needs a new pickup, where’s he going to go? The big dealerships in Fort Myers or Naples. He may not be buying a new pickup this year or even next. Maybe not for a few years.”
Recovery is expected to be difficult. Very little of the agricultural damage caused by Irma will be reimbursed by insurance. Only about 30 percent of specialty crops are covered by insurance, and those policies often come with high deductibles and elaborate escape clauses. At the end of 2017, the House passed an $81 billion disaster relief bill with $2.6 billion earmarked for agriculture relief nationwide, but experts predict the bill will face long delays before making its way through the Senate. And considering that agricultural damages in Florida alone were over $2 billion, the amount is a drop in the bucket.
Kozak and Cruz at Circle C Farm estimate their damages at more than $500,000, and their insurance company has covered almost none of it. They’ve had trouble securing a USDA loan because of their insurance issues, and their reduced income after the hurricane has made the process for a traditional loan daunting. They’ll need funds to rebuild their stock of layer hens and broiler chicks, but because a great deal of their savings went toward immediate needs—like a bigger generator to protect the meat they had in cold storage—the farm doesn’t have much to draw on at this point.
Cash flow problems like these are a serious issue for the post-Irma agriculture industry, according to Fritz Roka, associate professor of food and resources economics at the University of Florida.
“Many citrus growers could lose up to 50 percent of their income this year from the fruit destroyed by Irma,” he says of 2017. “They still have to pay off expenses that went into growing last year’s crop, and now they have to spend as much as $2,000 an acre to grow next year’s crop of oranges. This is a financial dilemma a lot of people are wrestling with right now.”
Though resources exist to help the agriculture industry, they often fall short.
“Gov. Scott just opened up a sum of money for citrus growers to borrow interest-free,” Roka says, “bridge loans that take you now to next year. It sounds like a pretty good deal, although you’re still borrowing money. And it’s capped at $125,000. Divide that by $2,000 an acre and maybe you get about 60 acres.”
Despite all this, Florida’s agriculture industry has a history of bouncing back. After Hurricane Wilma in 2005, many growers had to take out loans that required nearly a decade to repay, but they were able to continue planting and harvesting. In the 1980s, a series of freezes devastated the citrus crop, wiping out at much as 20 percent of the citrus industry north of I-4. In response, many citrus productions relocated to Southwest Florida. Of course, large farm operations are more equipped to handle the aftereffects of a natural disaster than small farmers. Not only do large growers have more money in reserve and better access to loans, but they are often geographically diversified with farms in Texas, California, North Carolina and Virginia as well as Florida. For smaller operations like Circle C, a calamity such as Irma can mean the end of business.
Yet even with the damage and near-
crippling loss to their farm, Kozak and Cruz are committed to rebuilding. As of November, they’d drawn down on their savings to make repairs to equipment and to start rebuilding their lost structures, and they’d purchased 700 new laying hens and 2,000 new broiler chicks to meet the demands of the winter season.
“Farmers by nature are pretty resilient,” Kozak says. “We don’t give up. That’s not who we are. Will we be OK? Yes. Will it take time? Yes.”