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Growers sigh, but not with any relief

The plumeria is a delicate flower, dangling orchidlike from its branches or swaying on leis around the necks of hula-dancing Pacific islanders.

It is designed to withstand a gentle Hawaiian breeze. Not a ferocious Florida hurricane.

"We suffered a good bit of damage from Frances," says Alan Bunch, owner of the Exotic Plumeria nursery in Seffner. "It shredded a couple of our greenhouses."

The wind also pounded his palms, killing them. Bunch lost thousands of dollars.

That explains why he's terrified of another major hurricane hitting Florida this season.

"It'll probably put us out of business," he says with a sigh.

Ivan may have sidestepped the Tampa Bay area, but Hillsborough County farmers, nursery owners and agricultural businesses still took a huge fiscal hit during Charley and Frances.

The damage wasn't limited to small-business owners like Bunch. Major growers preparing to plant their fall tomatoes and peppers sustained significant damage to crops and facilities, and others have had to push back planting schedules.

"It definitely has affected the fall crops," said Lee Ann Hinton, whose family owns Hinton Farms in Dover. "Some of them had entire rows of their plants, plastic and everything, washed away."

Statewide, damage from Charley and Frances could cost the agriculture industry $2-billion, or 30 percent of Florida's farming business, say officials from the state Department of Agriculture. That includes up to $600-million in damage to nurseries, more than $400-million to the citrus industry and around $300-million to sod businesses.

Hillsborough County was spared the worst of that damage. But the expense of planting preparation, and the loss of plants that were already in the ground could end up costing growers millions by the time revenues from the fall harvest are counted.

"After Charley, a lot of vegetable farmers were scrambling to get their crops in the field, and then along came Frances, which hit a lot of them pretty hard," said Stephen Gran, manager of the county's Agricultural Industry Development program.

"We have a market window in the winter for our vegetables and strawberries. If we miss that market window, the price we receive would be significantly less."

One of the county's largest vegetable producers, Deseret Farms of Ruskin, could lose 20 percent of its fall tomato crop, said manager Gary Reynolds.

"The plants looked pretty sad after Frances went by, just from the wind damage," he said. "We think we'll still get a harvest from them, but due to the extensive scarring and tissue damage, you have places opened up where bacteria infections and other fungal infections get in."

Some farmers _ including those at Tomato Thyme in Riverview, Willis Farms in Wimauma and Tomatoes of Ruskin Inc. _ either lost plants during Charley or Frances, or planted just before Ivan, crossing their fingers that the storm would stay offshore.

Others decided to wait until Ivan passed.

"You don't want to get everything ready and have it all washed away again," said Hinton, whose family had to replace several washed-out culverts after Frances.

Things could have been worse had Charley hit Ruskin or Palmetto head-on, said Reggie Brown, manager of the Florida Tomato Committee. A direct hit on south Hillsborough County or Manatee County could have wiped out 60 percent of Florida's tomato packing houses. The devastation, he said, would have been felt for years.

"I can replant crops," he said, "but I'd have a heck of a time replacing packing houses."

Another top export, tropical fish, was hit hard. Bruce Kraus, owner of Kraus Tropicals in Riverview, lost about $25,000 in fish and property from Frances, which ruined the hatchery roof.

Tim Hennessey, owner of EkkWill Waterlife Resources, said Frances wreaked havoc on his 50 acres of fish farms in Gibsonton. "We lost roofs on several buildings," he said.

More devastating, though, was the damage Charley caused to EkkWill's 168 acres in De Soto County, and the shipping business that was lost when Tampa International Airport shut down or threatened to during all three hurricanes. Out-of-state customers canceled their orders.

The ordeal has cost Hennessey tens of thousands of dollars in damage and countless hours of stress.

"You don't want to stay here with your family if it's not safe," he said, "but if you don't stay here and keep those pumps running, nobody's going to."

Elsewhere around the county, smaller nurseries are losing revenue simply because no one wants to upgrade landscaping at a time like this.

"Normally, August and September are two of our better months of the year for sales," Bunch said. "Nobody's thinking about buying anything now but plywood and generators. The normal cash transactions that are taking place in normal commerce are simply not happening."

Farmers realize the trend could last for weeks.

"We're still early in the hurricane season," Reynolds said. "You have to, at some point, just move on and hope there aren't more."

Industry leaders say it's too early to know the hurricane's final toll on local farmers. Hillsborough County has been declared a disaster area, opening the door for residents to receive Federal Emergency Management Agency relief. And a directive from President Bush named Hillsborough an agricultural disaster site, meaning many farmers will be eligible for low-interest emergency loans until May 2005.

"Some of it is covered through insurance and crop insurance through USDA," said Liz Compton, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Agriculture. "A lot of it isn't, unfortunately."

Eventually, although farmers may someday swap stories about the hurricane season of 2004, the local agriculture industry will recover, said Gran, the county agricultural development manager.

"Farmers, they don't tend to complain a whole lot," he said. "When their productivity is down, this time, it's going to be attributed to the hurricane. A few years ago, it was drought. They seem to roll with the punches and hopefully come out on top."

Jay Cridlin can be reached at (813) 661-2442 or cridlinsptimes.com.

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