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Florida citrus growers plead for federal aid after Irma's devastation

15 September 2017

"Based on reports from the field, it's estimated that there's a 50 to 70 percent crop loss in South Florida, depending on the region", she said. "Losses are less going north". Joel Widenor, co-founder of Commodity Weather Group, forecast the overall orange crop loss at 10 percent and the grapefruit loss at 20 percent to 30 percent.

In an interview Wednesday, Widenor said CWG didn't revise its initial estimates, but he added that "the ground crews will have a much better feel for it".

As for the vegetable crop, Putnam says that industry is in "tatters". He says a number of the growers won't be able to replant in time to produce a crop for the holiday harvest.

There's still no official reports of economic loss totals from agriculture but it could surpass $100 million, as the value of Florida's citrus a year ago exceeded $1 billion.

"I wouldn't be hesitant to say we took 120 miles per hour winds in LaBelle", said Anthony Pescher, the harvesting manager for Wheeler Brothers Inc., a Lake Placid-based citrus company with several thousand grove acres in Florida.

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Due to its warmer climate, the country also grows other crops including tomatoes, grapefruits, watermelons and sugar cane. South Florida damage is more severe. Justin Sorrells, a citrus producer in Arcadia, Fla., says that farmers in his area lost a "minimal" amount of fruit, although he's anxious the flooding still could damage many trees. Hurricane Irma has since been weakened to a tropical storm, but still produced near hurricane-force winds, storm surges and flooding.

According to government data, Central Florida's Polk County - located between Orlando and Tampa - is the state's biggest county in terms of citrus production, followed by Hendry, located on Lake Okeechobee's southwestern shore.

Mike Sparks of Florida Citrus Mutual says growers have dropped fruit, toppled trees and standing water in their groves. Root rot endangers the health of the tree when the trunk stays moist for extended periods of time.

Putnam, a Bartow resident who is running for governor next year, called the impacts "extensive" for growers, particularly those in the struggling citrus industry.

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SPARKS: It doesn't matter where you are in the state of Florida.

"Before Hurricane Irma, there was a good chance we would have more than 75 million boxes of oranges on the trees this season; we now have much less", said Shannon Stepp, executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus.

Florida ranks second in orange juice production to Brazil, and its grapefruit accounts for more than half of the US production, according to the USDA. The sunshine state is the largest producer of orange juice in the US, and the industry accounts for almost 45,000 jobs and contributes over $8 billion to the state's economy.

AMY GREEN, BYLINE: Citrus growers greet Florida Senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio in a parking lot, shaking hands before heading to a nearby grove to see the damage.

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Florida citrus growers plead for federal aid after Irma's devastation