Citrus Commission Chairman Testifies on Hurricane Damage

citrus could recover
citrus could recover

Ellis Hunt Jr.

The Florida Senate Agriculture Committee held a meeting to discuss Hurricane Irma damage on Oct. 12 in Tallahassee. The meeting featured two panels of growers and ranchers who gave testimony about damage they have witnessed from the hurricane. Ellis Hunt, third-generation citrus grower and chairman of the Florida Citrus Commission, gave testimony about his family farm as well as the industry.

Hunt began his testimony with a short video that showed clips of damage from around the state. The clips included visuals of bare trees, flooded groves and fruit on the ground. When the video ended, he told his personal story of damage in his family’s grove.

Hunt recounted calling his family after the storm. His family told him to wait a few days before traveling to see the damage because it was impossible to get into the grove because of flooding. Hunt said when he finally made it down to the grove, about 90 percent of the grapefruit crop was on the ground engulfed in water. “When you’re looking at your whole income for a year laying on the ground, it’s really close to having a death in the family,” Hunt said.

Unfortunately, Hunt was not able to salvage much of anything, partly because by the time the grove could be entered, the fruit had rotted. However, another issue was labor. There was not enough labor to salvage the remaining good fruit quickly enough.

Now, it has been over a month since Hurricane Irma hit. According to Hunt, groves are still suffering. He said he was in the groves about a week ago. At first, all he could see was brightly colored fruit on the ground. However, as he came closer, he realized there was a gray blanket of rotted fruit under the bright fruit. The brightly colored fruit was fruit that has continued to fall from the trees. “So, those groves could possibly hit 100 percent loss because that fruit was whipped around,” Hunt said.

Hunt added that this year was actually looking up for the Florida citrus industry. After years of struggling with citrus greening, growers were expecting a great season, but Irma destroyed that hope. Concern about how the hurricane will impact HLB-infected trees is also still looming. “So, you have a compromised tree in the ground as it is, and then it stands in water for seven to 10 days. Nobody can tell us today how many of those will survive when we come around to the spring,” he said.

Hunt told the committee that the biggest thing the industry needs now is federal help. He said that growers really need help with their production costs and the additional expenses they are facing due to the hurricane. For example, according to Hunt, growers are paying roughly $700 per week for pumps that can keep the water moving from their groves.

As bad as this situation seems at the moment, Hunt has no doubt that the industry will make a comeback. “We’re a big part of Florida, and we’re going to continue to be,” Hunt concluded.

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Abbey Taylor