December freezes could put some growers out of business

In Southwest Florida, crop losses are expected to top $140 million from three freezes that hit last month.

Losses in the five county region, including Collier, Lee and Hendry counties, cover seven major crops: tomatoes, peppers, green beans, eggplant, corn, cucumber and squash.

“The big issue here is that it’s a domino effect. It’s not just hurting growers and farmworkers. It’s hurting everybody that is involved in that food chain,” said Robert Halman, the Collier County director for the University of Florida/IFAS Extension.

The losses for farmworkers, who don’t have as much work, are estimated at $33.6 million. On top of that $23.8 million in sales could be lost, primarily by packers, according to a report by University of Florida researchers and economists.

Total losses — including crop losses, losses to farmworkers and lost revenues related to harvesting — are estimated at more than $197 million in Southwest Florida.

Loss estimates are considered preliminary and could increase by 10 to 20 percent, Halman said.

“We don’t know exactly what the loss is going to be yet,” he said. “It’s early really.”

Damage was most severe in Glades and Hendry counties and areas east of Immokalee. Corn and green beans were “mostly a complete loss,” according to the report.

More than half of the estimated crop losses – about $87.5 million – are attributed to tomatoes.

The expected losses for some of the other key crops in Southwest Florida are: bell peppers, $32.4 million; green beans, $21.6 million; specialty peppers, $18.5 million; eggplant, $14.6 million, and sweet corn, nearly $8 million. Another $7.5 million in losses were tied to cucumbers and squash.

In areas where vegetable plants survived and are likely to regrow yields are expected to be off by 30 percent as a result of damage and stress from the freezes.

University of Florida researchers don’t expect orange juice losses to exceed 10 percent in Southwest Florida. Fresh fruit losses could reach 20 percent.

Sugar cane also took a hit, but losses will only be seen after the crop is milled.

Last January, a severe freeze left vegetable growers in financial straits. Then came the freezes at the end of the year.

The most recent freezes could put some small and medium-size growers, who are already deep in debt, out of business, Halman said. In this tight credit market, loans are much harder to get.

“We have some huge agricultural operations here,” Halman said. “If we keep getting these drastic drops in temperatures and destruction of crops it’s going to cause a major economic effect.”

Last January’s freeze was so severe that the local economy in Immokalee “just dropped off the map,” Halman said. Grower losses from that freeze were estimated at more than $147 million in Southwest Florida.

In Immokalee, packing houses were shut down for weeks because vegetable supplies ran so thin last January. Fast-food chains, like McDonald’s and Burger King, didn’t have enough tomato slices to put on their sandwiches and hamburgers. That didn’t happen after December’s freezes because the damage in Collier County wasn’t as severe and there was still plenty of tomatoes to pack.

Some growers have been hurt worse than others.

One pepper grower told University of Florida researchers that he would have very little work for farm laborers until the end of February because he lost so much of his crop last month. Another producer with 200 acres of tomatoes told them his crop was “completely wiped out,” and that some of the smaller growers might not plant a spring crop.

The damage report from last month’s freezes was presented to Collier County commissioners at a board meeting earlier this week.

Collier County Commissioner Jim Coletta, whose district includes Immokalee, said the more frequent freezes were disconcerting, especially because agriculture historically has been one of the county’s top industries.

He wonders how long growers can survive if freezes continue to devastate their crops.

“I don’t know how these people can exist,” he said.

He suggested a new study be done by University of Florida researchers looking at agriculture’s impact on Collier County as “an economic engine,” and how the ongoing freezes have changed the impact.

“People are out of work,” Coletta said. “So then we have to turn to the private sector, nonprofits, to be able to keep them going until the next crop comes in again. It seems to be a never-ending, repetitive situation. Now, we are not going to come up with a solution here today. But what I would like to do is to at least be able to get a better understanding of where we are with this and where we are going to be in the future.”

Collier County Commissioner Donna Fiala asked if more agricultural workers are moving away from the area to find other work because of the freezes.

Often, growers will move their employees to wherever the work is, Halman said.

“They can’t control the weather,” he said. ‘So they are trying to control where their workers are.”

Connect with Laura Layden at www.naplesnews.com/staff/laura_layden.

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