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Florida citrus struggles after Hurricane Ian

Many parts of Florida’s agriculture were impacted after the hurricane hit the state on September 28.

Fifth-generation farmer Roy Petteway looks at the damage to his citrus grove from the effects of Hurricane Ian on October 12 in Zolfo Springs, Florida. (Chris O'meara/AP)

The thousands of oranges scattered on the ground by Hurricane Ian’s fierce winds are only the start of the disaster for citrus grower Roy Petteway.

The fruit strewn on his 100-acre grove in central Florida since the storm swept through will mostly go to waste. In addition, the flood and rain waters weakened the orange trees in ways that are difficult to see now.

Citrus is big business in Florida, with more than 375,000 acres in the state devoted to oranges, grapefruit, tangerines and the like for an industry valued at more than $6 billion annually. Hurricane Ian hit the citrus groves hard, as well as the state’s large cattle industry, dairy operations, vegetables like tomatoes and peppers, and hundreds of thousands of bees essential to many growers.

Most Florida oranges are used to make juice, and this season’s drastically lower harvest, combined with the still-unquantified slam from Ian, will press prices upward and force producers to rely even more heavily on California and imported oranges from Latin America.

Then there are the bees.

The University of Florida estimates that about 380,000 known bee colonies were in the path of Hurricane Ian as it bisected the state. The storm not only damaged the beehives, but it also blew off blossoms, leading some bees to raid other colonies for the honey they need to eat.

“Masses of honeybee colonies submerged in water are in distress,” the Florida Farm Bureau said in a statement. “Bee pollination is critical to the livelihood of our state’s plants and crops, and is just one example of the long-term effects of this deadly storm.”

“If you eat, you’re part of agriculture,” Petteway, a fifth-generation Floridian, said during a tour of his groves. “We were anticipating a very good crop this year. Sadly, there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s just a devastating thing.”

The people in these rural parts of Florida, he said, will recover as they always have.

“This was going to be the first good year in a while,” he said. “We’re a resilient bunch. This is just another hurdle.”

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