Irma Florida Agriculture

An orange sits on a tree affected by Hurricane Irma on Sept. 13, 2017, in Lake Wales, Fla. Hurricane Irma dealt Florida’s iconic orange crop a devastating blow, destroying nearly all of some growers’ groves in Southwest Florida and seriously damaging groves in Central Florida.

Since taking office in January, Gov. Ron DeSantis has made it a stated priority to expedite the distribution of funds from a $340 million federal grant allocated to assist Florida’s citrus industry in its recovery from $760 million in crop damages caused by Hurricane Irma.

During the Florida Citrus Industry [FCI] Annual Conference in June, DeSantis announced the dispersal of more than $77 million in Citrus Recovery Block Grant funds for citrus growers, who saw more than 420,000 of 569,000 acres of groves statewide damaged or destroyed by the September 2017 storm.

DeSantis on Wednesday reported another $100 million had been approved for distribution to citrus growers by the state’s Division of Emergency Management [FDEM].

“Proud to announce that [FDEM] has approved more than $100 million to FL citrus growers recovering from #HurricaneIrma,” he tweeted. “This is great news for our citrus industry and shows our commitment to ensuring FL growers make a full recovery.”

Citrus production, which includes oranges, grapefruits and specialty fruits such as tangerines and tangelos, is Florida’s second-largest industry, behind only tourism. It employs 45,000 people, provides an economic impact of $8.6 billion and accounts for 57.7 percent of the nation’s domestic orange production, according to the state’s Department of Citrus [FDC].

From the early 1970s through the end of the 20th century, Florida regularly produced more than 200 million 90-pound boxes of citrus. Orange production tallied 244 million boxes during the 1997-98 season, according to the FDC.

But Florida’s citrus industry has struggled over the last two decades from an array of issues, including greening disease, increased development of rural areas, changes in drinking habits and the infusion of lower-priced – often subsidized – citrus imports.

Hurricane Irma exacerbated those issues. The storm forced more than 6.5 million Floridians to evacuate, left 7.7 million homes and businesses without power, caused 84 deaths across 27 counties and an estimated $50 billion in economic damages, making it the costliest hurricane in state history.

Assistance for the state’s citrus growers is only a component of broader recovery efforts from Hurricane Irma still being funded in incremental grants from federal and state agencies.

Last week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA] announced it was sending more than $86 million to eight cities and six counties for debris removal.

With the latest allocation, more than $1.02 billion in grants have been issued to Florida municipalities and non-profits to recover from the 2017 hurricane, according to FEMA.

Florida’s citrus industry did, however, post one of the most profoundly detailed – and enduring – accounts of the storm’s devastation.

In Irma’s wake, Florida citrus production in Irma’s wake during the 2017-18 season was the lowest recorded in 75 years, totaling just 45.05 million boxes of oranges. For the first time, California, with a 45.4 million-box harvest, surpassed Florida in orange production.

Citrus production stabilized this year, although it may take several seasons to fully rebound from Irma’s impact.

On July 11, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported a final count for the 2018-19 growing season of 71.6 million boxes of oranges, 4.51 million boxes of grapefruit and 990,000 boxes of specialty fruit.

Overall, the numbers were slightly above the USDA’s forecast of 71.4 million boxes and a 59-percent increase over the state’s orange harvest from the 2017-18 season. This year’s production was, in fact, 4 percent higher than numbers posted from pre-Irma 2016-17 growing season.

Grapefruit production, however, which before Irma had not been below 5 million boxes since 1918-19 – a century ago – was down in 2018-19 by nearly 42 percent from two years ago and specialty fruit production remained almost 39 percent below the 2016-17 growing season.