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Florida crop losses could tally 30 percent; legislators tour damaged fields

by Chip Carter | January 18, 2010
IMMOKALEE, FL -- Brown is not a color one expects to see here at the western edge of the Florida Everglades. In the aftermath of a record-setting freeze that dipped almost to the southernmost tip of the peninsula Jan 2-12, mile after mile of once-green fields and farms were left looking as desolate as a lunar landscape.

"It looks like a nuke landed," U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) said Monday, Jan. 18, from the middle of a Pacific Collier Fresh Co. pepper field here. Rep. Diaz-Balart and U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam (R-FL) conducted a whirlwind tour of Florida Jan. 14-18 in the wake of almost two weeks of record low temperatures that devastated Florida agriculture. All 67 Florida counties qualify for declaration as federal disaster areas; the state's growers and shippers expect to take a hit of more than $1 billion.

Gathering information for colleagues on Capitol Hill in hopes of drumming up support for disaster relief, Congressman Putnam toured citrus groves along the Ridge in central Florida, tropical fish farms and strawberry fields in Plant City and vegetable farms near Belle Glade Jan. 14-17, while Congressman Diaz-Balart worked his way north from Homestead to Lake Okeechobee. The two met up Jan. 18 in Immokalee to tour southwest Florida, by far the hardest hit region in the state.

There had been hopes that at least some of the southwest Florida tomato and vegetable crops could be salvaged, but after surveying the damage, a visibly moved Rep. Diaz-Balart declared, "It's a total loss. A total loss." Asked if he believed statewide damage estimates of $1 billion were accurate, he shook his head and said, "It's more than a billion."

Said Rep. Putnam, "It breaks your heart. Homegrown food is homegrown jobs. We're on the 'death and destruction' tour of 2010."

It will be weeks before an accurate accounting of losses is available, but already the picture looks bleaker than initially imagined. Rep. Putnam said that the first official numbers should start coming together "by the end of the week," around Jan. 22. The Florida Department of Agriculture said Jan. 18 that losses could run as high as 30 percent of the state's total crop.

While most growers will recoup at least some losses from crop insurance and will rebuild with the help of government disaster loans, both congressmen said that the best farm laborers can hope for is a quick return to employment and assistance from friends, family and community. Legislators and growers alike expressed concerns that the unfolding disaster in Haiti will push Florida farm losses off the front pages and out of the national spotlight.

Rep. Putnam said that while insurance will give farmers some relief, losses will far outstrip any foreseeable recompense. "This drives home the need for us to have better crop insurance," he said. "For a lot of people, it is not an efficient tool."

Whatever the actual damage to crops, a true assessment of the cost of the Florida freeze must encompass all economic sectors. "The ripple effect is going to set us back," Congressman Putnam said. "There's no question some of the local workers are going to be impacted by this loss."

Many Collier County residents and almost the entire population of Immokalee -- 20,000 people -- owe their livelihoods to agriculture. With no fields to tend or crops to harvest, thousands will be out of work for the better part of two months. Some employment will be available as fields are cleaned out and replanted, but many of the area's lower-income workers will simply go without paychecks for two months or more.

"This labor force we rely on, they're going to be hurt," said Justin Hood, farm manager for Pacific Collier Fresh in Immokalee. "A lot of them will leave." Mr. Hood said that 75-90 percent of his workforce will be unemployed for at least 60 days.

"There's no place else for them to go, there's no other crop to go pick right now," said Rep. Diaz-Balart. "It's devastating to the growers, to the farmhands and to all the businesses that depend on them. With the state of the economy, this makes a bad situation even worse."

Robert Halman of the Collier County Extension Service, which serves Naples and Immokalee, said that small farmers in particular "have been hurt pretty bad, adding, "It's just like we had a hurricane come through. Farmers are pretty hardy -- they realize it's a risk when you try to farm. It looks pretty bleak right now. Farmers are pretty resilient, but you don't expect it to freeze like this down here. Everybody says things like, 'It's never happened in my lifetime.' It's going to be hard. I can see people in the streets of Immokalee not working already."

Companies like Six L's Farm near Naples provide no-cost or low-cost housing for farmhands. Director of Farm Operations Jamie Williams said, "We're telling them to stay where they have a place to live, and that we'll try to rotate what work is available for the next 60 days to try and help them put food on the table."

Reps. Putnam and Diaz-Balart began their day Jan. 18 climbing into a pickup truck, while a contingent of aides piled into the back for an up-close look at farms in Immokalee and Naples. As the tour continued, Congressman Diaz- Balart marveled at midday, "It's brown everywhere you look."

Mr. Williams, who served as driver for part of the congressional delegation's tour, told the representatives, "It's not a pretty sight. I'm sure you have a pretty clear idea right now that there's nothing left. This is very humbling. This stuff you just walk away from."

Mr. Williams said that earlier in the day, he had taken a three-hour helicopter tour of Collier County and that the scene from the air looked even worse.

Said Rep. Diaz-Balart, "It has to be demoralizing and depressing to you."

"It is," Mr. Williams affirmed. "We don't mind losing a piece of a plant or part of a field. But this & ." His voice trailed off as he dismissed the devastation in the fields with a wave of his hand from behind the wheel of the pickup truck.

Mr. Williams' peers statewide are facing similar crises, though none are as severe as the damage to southwest Florida. "Homestead looks pretty much like [southwest Florida]," Rep. Diaz-Balart said. "South [Florida] got hit the hardest."

"There's an awful lot of brown" across the state, Rep. Putnam added.

Amid the devastation there were a few pockets of green. Even in southwest Florida, the occasional plant in a field survived the freeze; agronomists are already busy studying those survivors to see if they differ genetically from their cousins or were just lucky. Younger plants came through in fairly good shape; yields from those crops will be reduced, though, and none will bear for the next six to eight weeks.

Over the next few weeks, Florida farmers will go about the grim business of clearing ruined fields and replanting, utilizing hothouse sets that are put aside each year for just such an emergency.

The citrus industry is facing mounting losses, strawberry production may not hit full stride again until Valentine's Day, and there will be few or no Florida tomatoes or vegetables in stores for at least 60 days. Market prices are depressed due to a temporary glut that resulted from farmers harvesting whatever crops were in the field as the freeze approached. Once that surplus is gone, there will be nothing for two months, followed by another glut as product from replantings comes on all at once.

"I can assure you, for the next few months product will be pretty slim," Pacific Collier's Mr. Hood said. "I'm optimistic that we will recover fairly quickly, but we are going to need some help."

"We'll go from no crop to no market," Rep. Putnam said. "We have to fight the same battles over and over because of the uniqueness of Florida agriculture. You're always fighting the last battle."

Before leaving the fields to return to Washington, Rep. Diaz-Balart took one last look around the Six L's tomato farm where he had spent the past two hours.

"This," he said ruefully, "is as bad as it gets."