TALLAHASSEE — While federal relief for Florida growers impacted by Hurricane Irma may be getting closer to reality, citrus farmers found no surprises as a historically devastating growing season formally came to a close Thursday.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture closed out its monthly forecast report for the current growing season without veering from its June projection, made when essentially all the fruit was picked. The latest numbers showed that growers produced 34.7 percent fewer oranges and half the number of grapefruits than a year ago.
“The bottom line for Florida is we had no change from the previous forecast,” said Mark Hudson, U.S. Department of Agriculture state statistician.
Ravaged by the September hurricane just as growers felt they were make headway in a decade-long fight against citrus greening disease, growers saw overall production at its lowest — 49.58 million 90-pound boxes, the industry standard — since the 1941-1942 growing season.
Grapefruit production on its own, 3.88 million boxes, hit its lowest output since 1920.
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam has called the season “horrible.”
The latest figures did provide some consolation for Florida growers, many of whom suffered losses of more than 70 percent due to Irma: Collectively, they remained ahead of California in terms of orange production.
However, where less than a decade ago Florida doubled its western counterpart in orange production, this season’s Sunshine State orange crop filling 44.95 million boxes — a fifth of the state’s production 20 years ago — barely edged out the 44 million similar-sized boxes packed in California.
Another positive for the industry is that by Monday farmers may be able to start applying for long-awaited federal disaster relief that was part of a $2.36 billion agriculture package approved by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump in February.
Since April, the program has been targeted to start by July 16, with federal officials saying their goal was to start even earlier.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency continues to state on its website that the agency is “working quickly to implement this program.”
The money is slated to assist recovery efforts associated with hurricanes in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico and wildfires in California.
Florida has estimated its agriculture losses from Irma total $2.5 billion, with citrus accounting for at least $761 million of those losses.
Florida Citrus Mutual Executive Vice President Mike Sparks has advised members to quickly set up appointments for the relief. Under the federal aid, growers that received 75 percent of their adjusted gross income from agriculture will be eligible for up to $900,000 from the Wildfire and Hurricane Indemnity Program (WHIP), while those below the 75 percent benchmark face a $125,000 cap.
A grower’s insurance coverage will factor into the WHIP payments. More coverage can generate higher payments, according to Sparks.
“We understand there is a lot of complexity to WHIP and accompanying paperwork,” Sparks wrote to members. “But we believe this is a fair program that will provide the necessary funding to get growers back on their feet in addition to building a foundation for the industry to expand in the coming decade.”
Growers eventually also will be able to seek additional funds from a $340 million block grant the state is getting for citrus growers.
Under the block grant proposal, an insured citrus grower’s financial recovery cannot exceed 85 percent of estimated losses. For uninsured growers, the cap is 65 percent of their losses.
The Florida Division of Emergency Management will oversee the block grant funding, which will be available to replace damaged or destroyed trees, cover future economic losses and help pay the cost of crop insurance, division spokesman Alberto Moscoso said in an email.
The block grant will be open only to those growers who first apply for the WHIP money.