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Cleanup from Hurricane Irma a daunting task

Major hurricanes like Irma take a major toll on farmland, even when it’s very early in the season.

When Irma scathed the western side of Florida in early September, plantings in North Florida were in their early growth stage in greenhouses intended to protect them. Other young plants were already planted in fields, typically covered with plastic that protects them until they are sturdy.

Oakes Farms’ acreage in Immokalee, which is also the company’s headquarters, had about five million young plants in various stages of growth in greenhouses, and some recently planted in fields when news of the approaching hurricane became imminent.

hurricaneirma Company owner, Alfie Oakes, took immediate action and had as many plants as possible moved from the greenhouses to safer locations. While his action saved some plants, many that could not be moved were damaged or destroyed.

In addition to the loss of plants, the storm caused a tremendous amount of damage to fields and facilities.

Oakes Farms’ more than 400 laborers have been working daily to clean up, make repairs and relay plastic since the storm passed.

“All of the plants that were in the ground were destroyed,” said Steve Veneziano, vice president of the company. “We started replanting the plants that we saved from the greenhouses this week [Sept. 18].”

He added that about 10 percent of the plastic in the fields was salvageable, but is in need of patch repairs.

“Our entire labor force is contracted out,” Veneziano pointed out. “The majority are migrant workers that have experience in farm work, and roughly 15 percent are untrained general laborers from the local area who are in seek of work.”

As of Tuesday morning, Oakes Farms’ laborers had planted roughly 150-acres of peppers, eggplant, squash and cucumbers in a 72-hour period.

“And we’re moving full speed ahead,” he added. “We are thankful that we pulled the plants from the greenhouses in an effort to save as many as we could. The greenhouses were completely destroyed. We were able to save about 70 percent of these plants, and many of the younger plants are already back in a greenhouse for continued strengthening until they’re ready to plant.”

Oakes Farms’ packinghouse lost 75 percent of its roof, which had been totally repaired by Sept. 18.

Veneziano added that farms across Northern Florida suffered the same or similar losses, and now everyone’s mind-set is on rebuilding, replanting and moving forward.