Irma could cause havoc for Florida's citrus, sugar industries

Citrus farmers in Florida could have a real problem on their hands after Hurricane Irma hits the region just weeks before harvest.

Florida is the main growing region of citrus for the country’s orange juice industry and this fall’s harvest would account for nearly half of the state’s annual production. But Irma threatens to blow fruit off trees and even uproot entire plants. If that occurs, it could take years for replanted trees to become productive.

"We're keeping our fingers crossed that it keeps going east and ends up in the Atlantic somewhere," Andrew Meadows, a spokesman for Florida Citrus Mutual, a grower trade organization, told BuzzFeed News. "Farmers can secure their equipment, and get their crop insurance papers in order. But with a storm of this magnitude, there's not a whole lot you can do."

The Sunshine State’s orange industry has already been struggling for more than a decade and producing nearly half the volume it did 10 years ago. It’s due mostly to a disease called citrus greening, which has ruined crops and caused trees to die or be less productive -- with fruit growing small and bitter tasting.

The storm could be an additional risk for farmers. Florida orange growers typically harvest their early varieties in mid- to late October, and the citrus crop is predominantly located in the southern two-thirds of the state.

Concerns for supply have already begun as futures prices for orange juice shot up by more than 6 percent Wednesday.

Another major cash crop for Florida that could be in danger is sugar cane.

“The exact track of the storm will be a major determining factor on the extent of the crop damage,” Don Keeney, senior agricultural meteorologist for MDA Weather Services, told the Palm Beach Post. “A storm track right over the center of the Florida peninsula would likely result in significant damage to citrus trees and sugar cane plants.”

Palm Beach County is Florida’s largest producer of sugar cane and the state produced more than 2 million tons of sugar last season, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.

U.S. Sugar Corp., which grows sugar cane in western Palm Beach County, is already taking precautions against what could be the storm of the century.

“Our farmers are drawing down water levels in farm canals and securing equipment and buildings. Our railroad is securing railcars and equipment. Our sugar factory, citrus processing plant and water treatment plant are securing facilities and equipment,” spokeswoman Judy Sanchez told the newspaper.

“Farmers are always at the mercy of Mother Nature. You prepare and you pray. Right now, the people of the Glades are praying long and hard for everyone potentially in harm’s way.” 

Perry Chiaramonte is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @perrych