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Farms Also Victims in Charley's Aftermath

The hurricane leaves fallen oranges, wilted orchids and roaming cattle in its wake.

August 16, 2004|From Associated Press

ARCADIA, Fla. — Hurricane Charley blew the roofs off more than half of the 40 greenhouses where brothers Rodney and Tom Hollingsworth grow orchids for Home Depot and Lowe's stores, but the hurricane didn't worry them as much as the sunshine that followed.

The sun is drying out exposed plants, wilting purple and yellow buds. The brothers estimate that their Sun Bulb Co. could lose as much as 90% of its $1-million crop. And they aren't alone.

Normally, green, golf-ball-sized oranges would be dangling from tree branches in groves that stretch for miles. Now, after Charley tore through Florida's agricultural belt Friday, the young fruit is getting trampled underfoot. Flattened fences are letting cattle roam the roads.

Agriculture is big business in Florida, second only to tourism.

The Sunshine State, with about $7 billion in agricultural sales, ranked ninth nationally last year. (California is the biggest farm state in the U.S.)

With phone lines down and access often limited, it was too soon to tell how much damage Charley caused for agriculture.

If it's even close to what Hurricane Andrew did to citrus farmers in southern Miami-Dade County in 1992, "it's going to be tough for some guys to come back," said state Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson.

This all comes at a bad time for orange producers.

Growers are earning about 60 cents per pound solid of juice, compared with 85 to 90 cents two seasons ago, said Andy LaVigne, chief executive of the trade group Florida Citrus Mutual.

U.S. orange juice consumption is expected to fall about 13% from a peak of 1.5 billion gallons during the 2000-01 growing season to an expected 1.3 billion gallons this season, he added.

Now, farmers have to contend with Charley's fallout too. Large citrus growers in the hard-hit counties of DeSoto, Hardee and Polk lost groves, barns, equipment and homes.

Jim Selph, agricultural extension director for DeSoto County, estimated that about two-thirds of the orange crop got knocked off trees there. The county, home to the farm town of Arcadia, produces an annual citrus crop worth about $100 million.

"That's cash out of the pocket that won't be there," he said.

As for the county's $40 million worth of cattle, larger farms seemed to be doing fine. But smaller farms, with 30 to 40 head, had fences knocked down and livestock wandering around.

"Cows are out of their environment, out on the roads," Selph said. "People can hit them."

LaVigne said the citrus group was working with state and federal officials to obtain disaster assistance for growers, many of whom have crop insurance policies from the U.S. Agriculture Department.

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