Less than half of initial estimates available for exports

Florida grapefruit growers assess Irma’s wrath

While it’s still early days after Hurricane Irma ripped through the state of Florida and surrounding regions earlier this month, grapefruit growers in the state are facing the depths of the storm’s damages.

“People have lost anywhere between 25%-40% of the grapefruit crop,” says Dave Brocksmith of Vero Beach, Fl.-based Seald Sweet International. Brocksmith points out that of the three grapefruit growing regions—the River, the Ridge and the Gulf districts—the River and the Gulf are of greater concern given how much grapefruit is grown there.

Grapefruit grove. Photo credit FDOC

“I’ve heard anything from 20% on the river to 80% in the gulf,” says David Haller of Premier Citrus Packers of Vero Beach, Fl. “However, from what I’ve been led to believe, just about every grove in the state experienced the storm in some capacity.”

The effects in the Gulf
Meanwhile down in the Gulf, over which the eye of Irma blew right over with winds in excess of 100 miles/hour for several hours, the situation looks more severe. “You’re probably looking at between 50-70 per cent of the grapefruit crop being gone there,” Brocksmith says.

“The Gulf region is expected to see the most complication from wind damage followed by the Interior and then the Indian River region,” says Haller. “The biggest issue we experienced here on the river was water-- there were reports of 16-21 inches associated with the storm.”

While the Bartow, Fl.-based Florida Department of Citrus (FDOC) notes it’s too early to get a full picture of the damage, early estimates of the impact for Florida grapefruit from Irma could include fruit loss as much as 50% or higher. (For all Florida citrus, estimates put trees with fruit on the ground in the range of 30 to 70 percent, depending on the region.)

Exports to suffer
Collectively, Brocksmith believes exports could take the hit when it comes to managing shortages. “Export will just have a lot less fruit,” he says, noting that while Seald Sweet budgeted for 300,000 packages of export and domestic fruit combined, because most of its grapefruit was grown in the hard-hit gulf, it’ll pack somewhere between 50,000-70,000 or less than half the initial estimates. Recipients of Florida grapefruit tend to be countries such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, France, the United Kingdom, Belgium and Germany.

Another complication was the fact that growers like Seald Sweet and Premier Citrus were readying to harvest the fruit. “We were right on the cusp of starting,” says Brocksmith. “We were going to pick that week or the week after and instead we had to go into defensive mode by taking care of the packing house and do other things to protect our infrastructure. We couldn’t do any advanced picking and packing.”

Other concerns

While the crop losses are the immediate concern, Brocksmith notes the longer-term effect as well. “We’re worried about tree mortality,” he says. “You have a lot of standing water in the gulf growing district and it was tough to pump water off the groves.” He says concerns really rise after 50-96 hours of trees in standing water. “And these trees were in the water much longer than 96 hours,” he says. “We know there’ll be damage but we don’t know how significant it will be.” Those weakened trees will continue to drop fruit as well, adds the FDOC’s executive director, Shannon Shepp.

Pricing effect?
Not surprisingly, there’s already talk of prices pushing up on Florida grapefruit. “We don’t want to scare people because we will have grapefruit,” Brocksmith says. “There’ll just be significantly less of it and it will cost more.”

At the start of the season, traditionally grapefruit goes for super premium levels which then come down significantly over the first three to four weeks of the season. “This year, demand will greatly exceed supply and customers can expect to pay much higher prices the entire season,” Brocksmith adds.

That said, thresholds possibly await. “While consumers can expect to pay more for their fresh citrus and juice this season, we just need to be careful we don’t price ourselves out of the market,” says Haller. “Sometimes a price increase can translate into a decrease in sales.”

Help to recover
As the recovery efforts progress, growers may appeal to the U.S. Congress for recovery help. “A natural disaster like this makes it very difficult for growers to continue,” adds Haller. “Crop insurance covers growing expenses, but not fruit value. There needs to be an incentive for growers to replant. The industry contributes a lot of money to the state of Florida as well as supports many families and we are already facing declining production due to greening and this is a huge hurdle for growers to get over.”

For more information:
David Brocksmith
Seald Sweet International
Tel: 1-772-569-2244 x238

David Haller
Premier Citrus Packers
Tel: +1-772-778-8403

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