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Wilma menaces Florida’s citrus, sugar crops

Wilma, the record-tying 21st storm of a harsh Atlantic hurricane season, may devastate prime citrus and sugar crops in Florida, officials warned on Wednesday.
NOAA satellite image of Hurricane Wilma
A NOAA satellite image shows Hurricane Wilma churning over the northwestern Caribbean Sea. Officials are worried the storm may devastate prime citrus and sugar crops located in Florida.NOAA / Reuters
/ Source: Reuters

Wilma, the record-tying 21st storm of a harsh Atlantic hurricane season, may devastate prime citrus and sugar crops in Florida, officials warned on Wednesday.

The Sunshine State’s $9.1 billion citrus industry is fretting about the storm and the cane plantations in the state also lie at risk only a year after three hurricanes in quick succession pummeled Florida’s groves.

Wilma grew into a potentially catastrophic Category 5 hurricane with winds of nearly 175 miles per hour after swiftly powering up in the warm waters of the northern Caribbean.

Worse, a U.S. Air Force reconnaissance plane recorded a preliminary pressure reading Wednesday morning of 882 millibars, making it the lowest since Hurricane Gilbert registered an 888 millibar reading in 1988.

“All the growers are watching it,” said Casey Pace, a spokeswoman for Florida Citrus Mutual, the state’s largest growers’ association. “We have not really begun harvesting, so much of the crop is still on the trees, which obviously is a concern for growers.”

Florida’s citrus industry was battered by three hurricanes that demolished 40 percent of last year’s crop and spread the wind-borne bacteria that cause citrus canker disease.

“Typically around this time of year we’re already starting to harvest, but because of the hurricane impact last year and the stress on the trees, our crop is going to be later, about a month later, so Wilma would not be good news for us,” Pace said.

The bigger fear is that another hurricane could spread the canker-causing bacteria. Citrus canker does not harm humans but disfigures the fruit and causes it to drop prematurely to the ground.

Florida has fought for a decade to halt its spread by burning citrus trees within 1,900 feet of an infected tree in an eradication campaign that has already cost commercial growers 6 percent of their trees. Regulators had hoped to eradicate the canker by the spring of 2007.

“If we have another storm, it could spread canker around more,” Pace said, adding, “There’s not really a whole lot you can do.”

Commodity analyst Judy Ganes of J. Ganes Consulting said the storm could also batter sugarcane farms in Florida.

Top U.S. sugar producer
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s monthly supply and demand report in October, Florida is the top sugar producer in the country. The USDA forecast Florida output in the 2005/06 marketing year at 1.913 million short tons, up from 1.692 million short tons in 2004/05.

Damage to Florida would come hard on the heels of Hurricane Rita lashing and flooding sugarcane fields in Louisiana, which is second to Florida for sugar in the United States.

Cane industry officials in Louisiana said that up to 75 percent of production could be lost in areas where Rita’s surge hit hardest. Louisiana is projected to produce 1.152 million short tons of sugar in 2005/06, down from last season’s 1.16 million short tons.

USDA said in the same production report that Florida’s citrus industry, which harvests three-fourths of U.S. citrus fruit, will produce 190 million (90-lb) boxes in 2005/06.

That is up from the hurricane-hit crop of 149.6 million boxes in 2004/05 but sharply lower from a harvest of over 240 million boxes in the previous season.

In addition, Miami is a key coffee port of the United States. It is one of four ports receiving coffee for delivery at the New York Board of Trade. The others are New Orleans, New York and Houston.

NYBOT said that as of Oct. 17, there are 498,735 bags of coffee in Miami, with another 1,050 bags awaiting grading.

The U.S. Green Coffee Association said in its monthly report that there are 786,597 60-kg bags of coffee in all of Miami, the third highest stockpile behind New York and New Orleans.

NYBOT has suspended the licenses of four warehouses in storm-hit New Orleans because the coffee there had been damaged by floods spawned by Hurricane Katrina when it struck the U.S. Gulf port city in late August.