Column: Florida citrus industry rebuilding after Hurricane Irma

Hurricane aid is being used to rebuild infrastructure and replant groves.
Published June 14
Updated June 14

BY ELLIS HUNT JR.

Special to the Tampa Bay Times

Florida citrus growers are no strangers to disaster.

Year after year, we face new challenges. And time after time, we overcome. We love what we do, and we continue to provide Florida citrus for our nation and the world.

But when Hurricane Irma tore through Florida nearly two years ago, the damage and destruction affected the entire citrus industry from coast to coast. Florida’s citrus growers are grateful for the support from our families, friends, neighbors in the community and leadership on the state and federal level. We’re beginning to come back, and Florida citrus will soon be stronger than ever.

I’m a third-generation citrus grower, and I’ve seen my fair share of disasters. Hurricane Donna was the first storm I remember. It was 1960, and I had just entered the first grade. I remember riding through the groves with my father. We found fruit all over the ground, and some trees blown over.

In the 1970s and 1980s, there were many winters with freezing temperatures. A particularly devastating freeze in 1989 wiped out all of the citrus groves north of Interstate 4. That year, my family’s business lost 75 percent of our trees and fruit in the Lake Wales area. It was absolutely devastating. It took at least a decade to replant those groves, but we never considered an alternative. Growing citrus is what we do, and we’ll continue to do our best to provide the safest, tastiest citrus we can for American families.

Then in the early 2000s. Charley, Frances and Jeanne pummeled through the center of the state back-to-back-to-back. We evaluated the damages, we picked up the pieces and we replanted.

In 2017, Hurricane Irma struck. It was a disaster unlike any other. Florida citrus was already struggling in the battle against citrus greening. Many citrus trees were stressed, and growers had invested millions to treat the disease and find a cure. When the Category 4 storm hit Florida, it was just three weeks before harvest season would have begun. Instead of preparing to harvest our crop at groves in LaBelle and Immokalee, however, we found about 90 percent of it floating in the groves from the flooding of Hurricane Irma.

Trees in the groves that were hardest hit were under water for as long as 11 days. More than 100 acres of our groves that were flooded ultimately had to be bulldozed. In other groves, we found foliage blown off, broken limbs and even trees uprooted and pushed over. So much work, effort and investment had gone into those trees, and yet a large percentage of the crop was lost.

The devastation of the landscape had serious consequences on jobs and our local economy. Without a crop to harvest, there was no citrus to pack and the packinghouses were at a standstill. Without citrus to squeeze, many of the juice processing plants had come to a screeching halt. In my family’s business alone, what was once a team of 250 employees is now down to just 150.

Hurricane Irma was not going to take us down, however. Florida citrus is the state’s signature crop. Florida agriculture is an economic engine that supports more than 2 million jobs and contributes to our state’s economy in a big way, more than $120 billion in economic impact every year.

And what we do is important. We provide health and wholesome foods and beverages served at American family tables every breakfast, lunch and dinner. Furthermore, we’re stewards of the environment. Farms, groves and ranches protect Florida’s landscape from urban development, providing critical wildlife habitats and land to recharge Florida’s aquifers.

Florida’s citrus growers are extremely grateful for the leadership of President Donald Trump, Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Gov. Ron DeSantis. With their help, Florida’s citrus growers are receiving a much-needed shot of energy in the form of hurricane recovery support. We’re using it to rebuild the industry’s infrastructure, replant groves – both big and small – and continue to provide the world’s best citrus and citrus juice. We’re citrus growers. That’s what we’ve done for generations, and that’s what we’ll continue to do for generations to come.

Ellis Hunt Jr. is a third-generation Florida citrus grower. He is president and part owner of his family’s business, Hunt Bros., and chairman of the Florida Citrus Commission.

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