Hurricane Irma is threatening to wreak havoc on Florida farmlands, menacing $1.2 billion worth of production in the top U.S. grower of fresh tomatoes, oranges, green beans, cucumbers, squash and sugarcane.
Though its economy long ago diversified from its rural roots, Florida still has a huge influence on American grocery stores as the No. 2 U.S. produce grower, trailing only California. The state accounts for almost 10 percent of the nation’s land dedicated to fresh fruits and vegetables, according to government data. The storm threat has pushed orange-juice futures and domestic-sugar prices higher this week.
For farmers such as Andy McDonald, who grows strawberries near Plant City, Florida, there’s only so much that can be done to prepare for the damage. His fields are ready for planting his winter crop next week. But if punishing rains and overpowering winds tear away the sheeting already laid down over 500 acres that protects the plants from pests in the fall and keeps them warm in the winter, "we won’t have a crop," he said. The custom-made cover takes months to manufacture, ship, and lay down.
“It’s not something that has a quick turnaround,” said McDonald, 40, who’s the manager of Sweet Life Farms. Multiply his situation by the thousands of farmers in Florida, and Irma “will cripple a lot of communities,” he said.
Hurricane Irma, which is sweeping through the Caribbean and threatens to become the most expensive storm in U.S. history, could devastate the farm economy of Florida, a state with a unique history as a producer of winter fruits and vegetables given its warmer climate. Damage to croplands could affect U.S. food prices and farmer finances in the months and years to come.
Some markets are already moving. Orange juice futures in New York are trading near their highest level since May, while the benchmark contract for U.S. sugar rose on Wednesday to the highest since July. If Irma tracks further north and moves inland through Georgia or the Carolinas, corn, soybeans, cotton and peanut harvests in that region could be damaged.
In Florida, Irma’s timing offers comfort to at least some growers. For tomatoes, greenhouses nurturing seedlings may be in the storm’s path, but most of the crop isn’t yet in the ground, reducing damage potential, said Reggie Brown, executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange and a farmer outside Immokalee.
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