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Charley strikes blow at Florida agriculture

It's too soon to tell how much damage Hurricane Charley has done to Florida agriculture.  If it’s even close to what Hurricane Andrew did in southern Miami-Dade County, one official said, “it’s going to be tough for some guys to come back.”
Rodney Hollingsworth, of the Sun Bulb Co., in Arcadia, Fla., speaks Sunday about damage done to his greenhouses and orchid crop — destruction caused by Hurricane Charley.Chris O'meara / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Hurricane Charley blew the roofs off more than half of the 40 greenhouses where brothers Rodney and Tom Hollingsworth grow orchids for Home Depot and Lowe’s stores, but the hurricane didn’t worry them as much as the sunshine that followed.

The sun is drying out exposed plants, wilting purple and yellow buds. The brothers estimate their Sun Bulb Co. could lose as much as 90 percent of its $1 million crop. And they aren’t alone.

Normally, green, golf-ball-sized oranges would be dangling from tree branches in groves that stretch for miles. Now, after Charley tore through Florida’s agricultural belt Friday, the young fruit gets trampled underfoot. Flattened fences let cattle roam the roads.

Agriculture is big business in Florida, second only to tourism.

Florida ranked ninth nationally with about $7 billion in agriculture sales last year, and the industry contributed about $62 billion to the state economy, state Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson said. The Sunshine State is the nation’s top producer of oranges and is only behind Brazil in world rankings.

With phone lines down and access often limited, it was too soon to tell how much damage Charley caused for agriculture.

If it’s even close to what Hurricane Andrew did to farmers in southern Miami-Dade County in 1992, Bronson said, “it’s going to be tough for some guys to come back.”

Bad timing for industry
This all comes at a bad time for the industry, which is aimed mostly at the juice market, said Andy LaVigne, chief executive of the trade group Florida Citrus Mutual.

Growers are earning about 60 cents per pound solid of juice, compared to 85 or 90 cents two seasons ago, LaVigne said.

U.S. orange juice consumption is expected to fall about 13 percent from a peak of 1.5 billion gallons during the 2000-2001 growing season to an expected 1.3 billion gallons this season, he said.

Now, farmers have to contend with Charley’s fallout. Large citrus growers in the hard-hit counties of DeSoto, Hardee and Polk lost groves, barns, equipment and homes, LaVigne said.

When Charley came ashore in Charlotte County, it also damaged groves there and in Lee, Manatee and Sarasota counties, he said. Those seven counties combined make up more than 280,000, or about 35 percent, of the state’s 800,000 acres of citrus groves.

‘Cash out of the pocket’
Jim Selph, agricultural extension director for DeSoto County, estimated that about two-thirds of the orange crop got knocked off trees there. The county, home to the farm town of Arcadia, produces an annual citrus crop worth about $100 million.

“That’s cash out of the pocket that won’t be there,” he said.

As for the county’s $40 million worth of cattle, larger farms seemed to be doing fine, but smaller farms, with 30 to 40 head, had fences knocked down and livestock wandering around, he said.

“Cows are out of their environment, out on the roads. People can hit them,” Selph said.

LaVigne said the citrus group was working with state and federal officials to obtain disaster assistance for growers, many of whom have crop insurance policies from the U.S. Agriculture Department.