With over 10,000 acres of trees, citrus, and other crops stretching across Florida, IMG Enterprises, the holding company of two agribusinesses, Cherrylake and IMG Citrus, is well versed in mother nature’s unpredictable challenges. The company’s major landmarks span from Groveland to Vero Beach, and with decades of Florida weather-related adversities, IMG Enterprises has learned to prepare far in advance for the unknown and unexpected. Hurricane preparation tops their list.
Laying down the farm at Cherrylake in Groveland, FL before Hurricane Dorian in 2019.
Cherrylake’s tree farm extends over 1,000 acres of trees. In the instance of a hurricane, many of Cherrylake’s trees will be laid down, a process involving the careful tipping of containerized trees and laying them flat on the ground. This protects the trees from damaging winds and flying debris. This process generally takes 1-2 days, and post-hurricane pickup adds an additional 3-4 days with the requirement of 150-200 helpers. Because of the severity of the decision to lay down the farm, Cherrylake follows a list of procedures before making any final decisions. A number of items are prepared far in advance, such as keeping replacement items in stock for a faster recovery.
“When the difficult decision is made to ‘lay down’ the farm, further arrangements are made based on the hurricane’s size and projected landfall,” says Todd Gentry, Director of Production at Cherrylake, “Information is shared in a real-time document between Cherrylake’s crews, permitting everyone to see changes as they occur in each section of the farm.”
Cherrylake’s step-by-step process begins with an increase in irrigation for priority crops several days prior to laying down the farm. Next, irrigation emitters are removed as well as holding systems. Finally, trees are neatly laid down in the same direction, so they are easier to pick up after the hurricane has passed. When the storm is over, the farm is reviewed for any damages, and pickup begins as soon as crews can safely return to work. The same live document used for laying down the farm is also used for picking up the farm. Once trees are standing, a crew re-installs the irrigation emitters, and irrigation starts immediately. After irrigation begins, the plant health team inspects each crop to ensure the hurricane did not transport any pests along with it.
Paralleling Cherrylake, at IMG Citrus it takes several days to prepare the groves and the packinghouse for a hurricane threat, so the final call is initiated several days in advance. While Cherrylake is busy laying down thousands of trees, IMG Citrus is busy storing and securing over 6,000 harvesting bin units. Once indoor capacity is reached, the remaining harvesting bins are squared off. Similarly, loaded semi-trailers are parked along the side of these bins. Ratchet straps are used to secure the top layers of the bin piles. Semi-trailers are also parked in the receiving area to block wind from the doors of the packinghouse. The massive sunscreen located in the receiving area is removed and stored to protect from potential wind damage. Additional coordination with the sales team helps to tidy up open orders and modify the production schedule as necessary.
“Out in the groves, surface water is reduced to minimal needs, and the water level in the reservoir systems is dropped significantly,” says Melanie Ressler, CFO of IMG Citrus, “This process assures the groves are well-drained as an accumulation of water can be detrimental to the health of the citrus tree roots."
Flood zones in the groves are also verified, and dike structures are checked for any potential weak spots. Any remaining equipment in the fields are staged in safe areas to protect from flying debris.
“In order for all of the hurricane preparation processes to move smoothly, proper communication is vital at both Cherrylake and IMG Citrus,” says Michel Sallin, CEO of IMG Enterprises, “When a potential hurricane is around the corner, teamwork and clarity are essential to moving swiftly and efficiently.”