Florida's famous oranges are still falling from trees and rotting on the ground weeks after Hurricane Irma, and the state's agriculture commissioner said Thursday there will be fewer Florida vegetables on Thanksgiving tables and a shortage of poinsettias at Christmas.
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Florida farmers updated the state Senate Agriculture Committee that the storm damaged crops of all kinds, with losses topping $2.5 billion. Losses are reported to peanuts, avocadoes, sugar, strawberries, cotton and tomatoes. The storm also affected timber, milk production and lobster and stone crab fishing.
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"The fresh winter vegetables that are on people's Thanksgiving tables won't be there this year because of Hurricane Irma," Putnam said. "The losses are staggering; in many cases, the tale of those losses will be multiple years ... This is more than just damage contained in just one crop year."
He said Irma's path couldn't have been "more lethal" for Florida agriculture, with few crops spared. The citrus industry was particularly hard hit, with some estimates of more than half the orange crop lost.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture released its Florida citrus forecast Thursday, estimating that Florida will produce 54 million boxes of oranges, down 21 percent from last year.
But the Florida Citrus Mutual said the federal government should have delayed the forecast because it's still too early to tell just how hard hit the industry was after the storm. It said production would be closer to 31 million boxes of oranges, or a 55 percent drop from the 68.7 million boxes produced in the 2016-2017 season.
"Irma hit us just a month ago and although we respect the skill and professionalism of the USDA, there is no way they can put out a reliable number in that short time period," said Michael W. Sparks, CEO of the Florida Citrus Mutual.
The agricultural losses are expected to affect consumers, but how much so is still to be determined.
"I would expect prices to rise as a result of the winter vegetable capital of America being put out of the production going into the holiday season," Putnam said, but he added that there could be a flood of foreign fruit and produce entering the market that could keep prices from rising — something he said could further hurt Florida farmers.
"That could, over time, replace market share that should be going to Florida's farmers," he said.
Committee Chairwoman Sen. Denise Grimsley talked about the damage she's seen in her family's orange groves.
"The fruit on the ground was so thick it was hard to walk through, and the smell is now bad because of the rotting fruit," she said.
Putnam's family also farms orange groves. He told reporters they've lost about half the crop.
"It's not good," he said. "You can stand in the grove and continue to hear fruit fall. It's a double kick in the gut because this was the best crop we've set in years. We had better crop, better crop size, more fruit on the trees than I've seen in years. It was finally a crop to be proud of and now it's laying on the ground."
Associated Press writer Tamara Lush in St. Petersburg contributed to this report.