Growers discuss lessons learned from Hurricane Irma, replanting plans, grove rehabilitation, crop insurance and more.
By Tacy Callies
Paul Meador, citrus grower and head of Everglades Harvesting & Hauling in LaBelle, took a big hit from Irma and learned some valuable lessons in the process. He expects a 60 percent fruit loss for Valencias and an 80 percent decline in early-mid oranges this season.
Meador estimates he lost 30,000 trees. Older trees had an unusually large crop and were top heavy when Irma hit, causing the trees to topple. In some cases, large fallen trees crushed young trees planted beside them. “Our highest-producing mature trees are the ones we’ve lost,” Meador says. “It makes for a very difficult path going forward. After this season’s harvest is done, we’ll get the rest of the damage out so we can start replanting.”
The hurricane helped solidify Meador’s decision to convert most of his early blocks to Valencias. “Valencias in this area seem to be more tolerant to greening disease pressure than any other variety,” he says.
Meador expects it will take a couple of years to get enough trees to replace all that were lost. “I have not found any rootstocks to be much better than what we already have,” he says. “We’re trying a little bit of everything on a small scale. But in our soil types in this area it’s hard to beat Swingle, Carrizo, Kuharske and US-812.” He’ll continue to plant at a density of 180 trees per acre.
WINDBREAKS AS OBSTACLES
One thing Meador plans to change is his use of windbreaks. “Windbreaks are wonderful things to have until a storm comes,” he says. “Then windbreaks become barriers to access to your property following a storm.” He says fallen windbreak trees (red cedar and eucalyptus) also affected his neighbors’ access to their property, so he doesn’t think he’ll plant them again.
Meador has something else in mind to protect his groves. After Irma, he found that none of his trees on Cleo rootstock turned over. “They’re not great yielders, but they are great foundations,” he says. “We may plant a few rows around the perimeter of newly planted blocks to anchor our groves in.”
LACK OF LABOR
Irma also taught Meador about the need for improved labor planning. “For the better part of two weeks after the storm we had no one other than immediate family — with a couple exceptions — to help us recover,” he explains. “Most who evacuated didn’t come back until power came back on. There was an awful lot that needed to be done (pumping water, clearing debris, etc.), and very few hands to get it done with.”
He says he’ll need to provide some safe, secure housing for employees so they can stick around and help with recovery after the next storm.
While Meador has both tree and crop insurance, he says the policies are not adequate. “Crop insurance doesn’t represent the real value of the Florida citrus crop,” he says. “It’s something that’s got to be resolved. Florida Citrus Mutual is trying to craft some adjustments to the current program and maybe even create a new program that would be more market-based … with a simple calculation to figure out the value of our crops rather than requiring Congress to tell us what the value of our crops are.”
Lee Jones, general manager of Gardinier Florida Citrus, agrees that the current crop insurance program is not sufficient because values are set too low. “One problem we have with the crop insurance is there is no bloom coverage. So if your bloom is damaged, there’s no coverage there,” says Jones. “The dollar amounts are inadequate to cover the costs of production. The minimum insurable age right now (for trees) is 5 years old, so we need to change that. It would be nice if we could vary the coverage levels by citrus variety. And it would be nice if we could aggressively protect our cash-cow blocks and have lesser coverage on our other blocks.”
While Meador was expecting to settle his tree insurance claim by May, Jones say he is keeping his claim open longer because trees are still dying from the hurricane’s effects. Both growers will submit their crop insurance claims at the end of the season once picking is complete and final determinations can be made on fruit loss.
SLOWNESS OF FEDERAL RELIEF
Meador addresses the federal relief program, known as WHIP (Wildfires and Hurricanes Indemnity Program), that will allow growers to apply for aid beginning July 16 or sooner. “We’re all tickled to death that the money was appropriated, but every grower in the state is very disappointed in the amount of time it is taking to get the money dispersed,” he says.
According to Meador, many growers have not been able to pay their vendors for months. In addition to growing citrus, Meador also makes his living from vegetables, cattle, harvesting and hauling. He is hoping the diversity of his business interests will help him pull through as he awaits aid for citrus losses.
HLB AND HURRICANE DAMAGE
Jones’s biggest concern is the length of time it will take trees — which are already stressed from HLB — to recover from Hurricane Irma. He points out it took Florida growers two years to recover from the hurricanes of 2005, which was before HLB was widespread. Jones thinks the Irma recovery process will take three to four years, now that HLB is so pervasive.
While Jones says the trees he manages on the Ridge look good and will recover well, he is not so happy with trees in his Southwest Florida groves. “We have done everything agronomically possible to try to turn those trees around, and we still have trees dying.” Efforts included hedging, topping, liquid fertilizer injections, phosphite injections and foliar nutrition sprays.
Jones says solid blocks with Swingle rootstock withstood the hurricane much better than trees on Carrizo. “One block had Swingle on both sides of it and Carrizo right down the middle. All the Carrizo were blown out of the ground, and all the Swingle are still standing,” he says.
To replace hurricane-damaged trees, Gardinier will plant primarily Valencia on Swingle, US-812, UFR-5, UFR-4 and a few other newer rootstocks. Planting density will be 217 to 220 trees per acre.
Jim Gravley, owner-operator of Old Florida Citrus in Glades County, refuses to let Irma get in the way of his ambitious planting plans. Prior to Irma, he had already planned to expand his 600-acre operation to 8,000 acres by 2022. Despite major fruit loss and 25 percent tree loss, he expects to be at 1,000 acres by the end of this year.
Old Florida Citrus planted 10,000 Valencias in April and another 12,000 trees will go in the ground in the beginning of winter. This includes solid blocks planted at 280 to 310 trees per acre as well as resets.
New plantings will include OLL-4 sweet oranges on US-802 rootstock. While Valencias are the focus, Gravley intends to hang on to his best-performing Hamlins. “Some people are starting to get afraid of Hamlins because they seem to not be doing as well with greening. But in my opinion, that’s more on the Ridge. In the Flatwoods, where we have a higher water table, they seem to hold up better,” he says.
BEFORE AND AFTER THE STORM
According to Gravley, preplanning enabled him to prevent even greater losses from Irma. “I ran every drop of water out of this grove to get ready for the new water from the hurricane … I was able to get rid of the water that came down from the hurricane. Then, two days later, when we really flooded from the watershed from the north, I was able to get rid of that water in four days,” he says.
Gravley says some grove operations have been put on hold or scaled back while he awaits federal aid and insurance payouts. Equipment upgrades, mowing, ditch maintenance, hedging, structural repairs and irrigation fixes have been curtailed.
Efforts to rehabilitate hurricane-damaged trees with nutrition have been very successful for Gravley. He says he does not do four dry fertilizer applications per year, like some citrus growers. Instead, he uses what he refers to as a “Cadillac” nutrition program, with one application in the beginning of the year and one at the end of the season. It’s a high-end calcium nitrate-based program with boron, manganese and sulphur. Gravley says he made a “Cadillac” application at 550 pounds per acre in December, three months after Irma, and he couldn’t believe how well the trees bounced back.
“Trees stayed dormant when they were supposed to,” Gravley says. He adds that when he had postbloom fruit drop two years ago, there was three months of bloom. This year, there was only a single bloom with no early or late bloom. “It’s almost like the hurricane reset the DNA of the trees … I’ve set a crop already and I’ve never seen it this uniform in my career.”
Optimism is alive and well in Florida groves.
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