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Struggle for Florida citrus and agriculture after Hurricane Ian – GNT NEWS

Thousands of oranges scattered across the ground by Hurricane Ian’s fierce winds like so many green and yellow marbles are just the beginning of the disaster for citrus grower Roy Petteway.

After Hurricane Ian broke it in several places, the Sanibel Causeway Bridge reopened Tuesday afternoon to essential personnel and emergency work crews. NBC 6’s Ryan Nelson has the latest.

Fruit that has been scattered around 100 acres (40 hectares) of central Florida orchards since the storm hit will mostly perish. But what’s worse are the floods and rainwater that have weakened the orange trees in ways that are hard to see right away.

“We’ll be assessing the damage for the next six months,” Petteway said in an interview at his farm, where he estimates a crop loss of about 40%. “You’re going to have a lot of damage going up.”

Citrus is big business in Florida, with more than 375,000 acres (152,000 hectares) in the state devoted to oranges, grapefruit, tangerines and the like for an industry estimated at more than $6 billion a year. Citrus groves were hit hard by Hurricane Ian, as well as the state’s large livestock industry, dairy farming, vegetables like tomatoes and peppers, and even the hundreds of thousands of bees essential to many growers.

“This year is going to be tough, no one disputes that, but I believe in the tenacity and passion of our citrus industry professionals to come back stronger than ever,” said Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Nikki Fried.

The 2022-2023 orange forecast, released Wednesday, projects production at about 28 million boxes, or 1.26 million tons, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s down 32% from the previous year and doesn’t include hurricane damage, which is sure to make those numbers worse.

Most of Florida’s oranges are used to make juice, and this season’s drastically lower harvest, combined with still-unquantified straw from Ian, will push prices higher and force producers to rely even more on California and imported Latin American oranges.

“This is a punch in the stomach. There’s no doubt about it,” said Matt Joyner, executive director of the Florida Citrus Mutual trade association. “You really have about 72 hours to get the water out of these trees before you start to suffer significant damage, if not death. Trees need water to grow. They don’t have to stand in the water.”

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, appearing this week at a Florida Citrus Mutual rally in Zolfo Springs, about 75 miles (120 kilometers) southeast of Tampa, said about $3 billion in federal funding is needed to cover the cost of crop and tree loss. And, Rubio told about 500 people at the rally, the key is not to let the storm wipe out farmland.

“When you lose land, what happens is people can no longer afford to keep doing this and that land is taken. It’s gone,” said the Republican senator. “I’ve never seen a mall turned into farmland.”

Then there are the bees.

The University of Florida estimates that about 380,000 known bee colonies were in the path of Hurricane Ian as it split the state in half. The storm not only damaged the hives themselves, but also washed away the blossoms, prompting some bees to raid other colonies for the honey they need.

“Masses of submerged bee colonies are in trouble,” the Florida Farm Bureau said in a statement. “Bee pollination is critical to the life of our state’s plants and crops and is just one example of the long-term consequences of this deadly storm.”

More than 100 people died in Florida from the storm, half of them in the worst-hit Lee County, where the powerful Category 4 hurricane made landfall on September 28 with winds of 160 mph.

Hardee County, home to Petteway’s citrus and livestock operation, recorded four of those storm-related deaths. Adding to that tragedy, the long-term effects on the agricultural industry will further have a broad impact on the community.

“If you’re eating, you’re part of agriculture,” said Petteway, a fifth-generation Floridian, during a tour of his groves. “We expected a very good crop this year. Unfortunately, there is nothing we can do about it. It’s just a devastating thing.”

As Petteway was driving around on his golf cart, he spotted a brand new colt in a neighboring pasture that he hadn’t noticed before the hurricane. Coincidentally, not long after the storm passed, his wife gave birth to a daughter, now just over a week old.

People in these rural parts of Florida, he said, will recover as they always have.

“This will be the first good year in a while,” he said. “We are a resilient group. This is just another hurdle.”

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For more information on Hurricane Ian, go to: https://apnews.com/hub/hurricanes

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