By Charlie Reed
For the News-Gazette
The ghost of Hurricane Irma still haunts Florida’s agriculture market, a mainstay of the state’s economy, second only to tourism.
Osceola County – one the state’s biggest agriculture producers – was spared devastating losses, but some local farms and ranch operators relied upon funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to recover.
Hurricane Irma nearly wiped out its iconic citrus crop. Some growers in South and Central Florida lost up to 90 percent of their crops. Osceola cattle ranchers and commercial vegetable and fruit farmers were among the luckiest in the state, overall.
Irma made landfall in September in Monroe and Collier counties and then barreled up the state. Some $2.5 billion in losses — including $761 million to the citrus crops alone – were incurred – by the agriculture industry, Florida’s largest after tourism.
From property damage to flooded groves, Irma packed a punch. Much of the recovery money for ranchers and growers was distributed came from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and was distributed by U.S. Department of Agriculture through its established network of local offices around the U.S.
The USDA office in Kissimmee is co-located with county and state agricultural agencies at Osceola Heritage Park. After the storm, FEMA offered farm loans, livestock assistance funds, emergency conservation programs, and tree replacement services for agricultural producers. Some $2.5 billion in losses – including $761 million to the citrus industry – were incurred by the agriculture industry, Florida’s largest after tourism, supplying buyers all over the country.
Still, Florida’s citrus industry has been on the decline for years because of citrus greening, one of the most serious citrus plant diseases in the world, according to the USDA. Once a tree is infected, there is no cure and most affected trees die within a few years.
Local and state officials continue pushing for even more help from the federal government in Washington D.C. for the state’s beleaguered agriculture industry. Florida will get a federal block grant worth $340 million to go exclusively to the citrus industry.
The issue is now a driving political force for candidates running for Florida Agriculture Commissioner. The current commissioner, Adam Putnam, is running for governor.
Agriculture commissioner is one of three Cabinet jobs that will be on the November ballot, along with attorney general and state chief financial officer. Candidates in the 2018 race for the agriculture department are offering a variety of approaches to make Florida’s food chain more resilient before future natural disasters. Florida Legislature also has created tax breaks on fuel used to transport agricultural products, on agricultural materials purchased for repairs and for citrus packing houses that had their businesses interrupted by the storm or citrus disease. Some races for the Florida House and Senate also highlight the issue of emergency services for the agriculture industry. Florida’s hit from Irma was just one in a series of natural disasters across the nation in 2017 that showcased the precarious nature of growing and distributing food.