Citrus growers reeling from Hurricane Irma

Harvest beginning this week

INDIAN RIVER COUNTY, Fla. - In 2001, there were 20 packing houses on the Treasure Coast that moved at least a million boxes of grapefruit.  Last year, that number was one.

Now after citrus canker and citrus greening, the citrus industry took another hit recently from Hurricane Irma.

At Riverfront Packing Company in Gifford, workers are gearing up for the harvest.

“We’re looking forward to getting started, everybody’s got pent-up energy," said Riverfront Packing President Dan Richey as he looks at some of the first grapefruit picked over the weekend.

But while Hurricane Irma only did cosmetic damage to the packing house, in the groves, Richey said the hurricane was a real disaster. Richey says he lost anywhere from 40 to 50 percent of the fruit off the trees.

“We lost fruit to the ground because of the wind, then we also have some long-term potential tree damage because water was on these trees for four to five days," said Richey.

Governor Rick Scott last week announced a $25 million no-interest bridge loan program for struggling growers.

“We want the consumer and retailer to know there is fruit there, we will have a season.  There will be fruit in the stores.  The problem is that the volume the trees are producing makes it economically a disaster for the grower," said Richey. 

The USDA crop report will come out Thursday, with the government estimate for this year's citrus harvest.  It's expected to the lowest in recent history.  

Richey says it will be tough for the government to make its estimate with everything happening. “With greening disease, it’s a roller coaster.  You’ll have two trees that look good, you have two trees that don’t.”

But with 36 years in the industry, Richey is an optimist.  He paraphrases Mark Twain that reports of the death of Florida’s citrus industry are greatly exaggerated. “We will survive and I suggest to you we will thrive once again.”

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