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Florida growers catching up after delays due to Irma

Florida vegetable operations are finally approaching normal production, nearly three months after Hurricane Irma pummeled the state.

“Definitely the most affected is obviously the longer-maturing crops,” Adam Lytch, operations manager for Raleigh, N.C.-based L&M Cos., said in late November. “That’s really the only thing that hasn’t returned to normal at this point, like peppers and tomatoes. So we’re still feeling the effects of that a little bit. I think it’s causing the production — not just us, but other growers as well — to kind of trickle in versus kind of making the transition.

“That’s what’s made the transition from Georgia (or) north Florida down to central and south Florida a little more dicey. It just depends on how affected the area was and kind of what stage they were in,” Lytch said. “There’s definitely going to be more volume kind of starting the second week of December, but I still think it’s going to be the first of the year before things return to normal.”

Earlier in November, a couple of growers reported they were on schedule, albeit with lower volumes, but many said the storm put them two or three weeks behind.

Some had already begun harvesting certain items. Others expected it would be December or even January before they were shipping regular volumes.

Most companies did not have many plants in the ground when Irma hit, but the wind, rain and flooding still presented challenges.

“Hurricane Irma really didn’t damage too many crops for us because it was right on the cusp of when we would start planting, but it did create a very wet environment and then we continued to have quite a bit of moisture for the next couple of weeks,” Brett Bergmann, a partner in Branch: A Family of Farms in South Bay, said in mid-November. “It just really delayed plantings on all items, whether it’s leafy vegetables, sweet corn or green beans.

“Before we get fully cycled in, it will probably be at least a three-week delay,” Bergmann said at the time.

Jon Browder, sales manager for Belle Glade-based Pioneer Growers, also reported the weather delayed planting by about three weeks.

“What we did have in the ground when the storms came through pretty much got flooded out and we had to replant, but generally this time of year (mid-November) we’ve already started a few corn down here in Florida, and now we’re looking at either the last week of November starting or the first week of December,” Browder said.

Pioneer started with some beans in mid-November, which was also fairly late compared to most years.

Coral Gables-based Del Monte Fresh Produce also reported some difficulties due to the storm.

“Hurricane Irma affected crop and structures in our Mulberry, Fla., location but not as bad as expected,” said Dionysios Christou, vice president of marketing.

Homestead-based Brooks Tropicals also reported that its winter season, which includes star fruit and passion fruit, had been affected by Irma.

“We’re excited about the season for these fruits, but unfortunately the impact of Hurricane Irma has meant a much smaller crop,” director of sales Peter Leifermann said in early December.

Steve Veneziano, vice president of sales and operations for Oakes Farms, said the company had about 500 acres planted when the storm hit.

“Everything we had in the ground pre-Irma was a 100% loss, so it was a significant fiscal and timing setback for us,” Veneziano said in mid-November. “We’re the ones down here in Immokalee that, as far as South Florida growers, we plant earlier than pretty much everyone and had definitely way more in the ground than anybody in the area ... This year it definitely hurt us.”

As did some other growers, Oakes Farms also saw plastic ripped up from fields it had prepared but not yet planted.

By mid-November, the company was in production on squash and cucumbers and about a week from beginning to harvest some peppers.

“Typically we start all our varietal peppers and green bells right around Nov. 1, and this is going to put us just starting, scratching the surface, really right around Dec. 1, and we won’t be back to normal volumes for our normal program until early to mid-January,” Veneziano said.

“Squash and cucumbers, we’re able to go back in and replant and just throw the seed back into the ground after replacing plastic, where all the peppers, tomatoes and eggplant, you have to grow out the plants ... so it set us back quite a bit.”

Myakka City-based Utopia Packing, which grows mainly peppers, stayed mostly on schedule despite the storm.

The company began harvesting its early plantings around early November, said sales manager Jim Monteith. Still, Utopia felt the effects of Irma.

“The pepper crop up here in Myakka City did get hurt on our first few plantings,” Monteith said in mid-November. “Early estimate (is) probably somewhere around 30, 40% of the crop was lost to Hurricane Irma, and a lot of that acreage was replanted, but we didn’t have our full crop in the ground when we had Irma, so we still had probably a good 50% of our fall program left to put into the ground. So hopefully after all the replants and the continual planting we should still have a fairly decent amount of bell pepper for the fall program ... It’s just going to be kind of hit-and-miss starting off the deal.”

Calvert Cullen, president of Cheriton, Va.-based Northampton Growers Produce Sales, said the timing for harvest was about normal but noted that fields received fairly significant damage.

“We luckily didn’t have a lot of stuff planted, but we did have to go back and re-lay plastics and things like that,” Cullen said in mid-November. “We’re in the process of just starting to harvest some of the stuff now, and we are seeing some effects as far as yield-wise on stuff that was planted after the storm. I’m sure a lot of it due to it was wet when we were planting.”

Cullen said he expected supplies would be tight at least through early December.

Stephen Madonia, director of operations for Immokalee-based Chapman Fruit Co., said the company was affected by Irma like everyone else.

“It delayed full production by four to six weeks in the southwest Florida area, but all the farms are back in order and we are looking for quality products as the holidays approach,” Madonia said in late November.

Chapman Fruit was packing cucumbers, bell peppers and summer squash and expecting tomato and eggplant production to begin the first week of December.

This story is from The Packer.