Small family farmers in Southwest Florida are struggling

GAINESVILLE — Watching from a raised window at home as Hurricane Ian hit their farmhouse in Fort Myers, the McMahon family watched as the storm blew the market’s roof into the pond. Torrential wind and rain whipped two acres of hydroponic vegetables.

After Ian, the fourth-generation farming family had lost all their crops. The lettuce they would have harvested a week later and the precious sunflowers – all shredded. The fall festival, scheduled for this week, is now over. No more restless worries, wagon rides or pumpkin patch. Profits will take a hit for their business, Southern Fresh Farms Inc.

“It’s just heartbreaking because you know it’s your livelihood, and a lot of that time comes and gets destroyed,” Robert McMahon said. “Anything that comes apart, it’s going to take a lot longer to fix.”

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Across Florida, Hurricane Ian trampled about 4 million acres of farmland, according to the latest Department of Agriculture figures for affected counties. The impact may be small for acres of pasture use, said Gene McAvoy, a Hendry County vegetable officer emeritus.

The recovery for small operations like Southern Fresh Farms can be long. While large commercial farms can cover sprawling land, these farmers depend on smaller plots, McAvoy said. Insurance money or funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency can take up to a year to become available, he said.

“If you don’t have the money to continue on your own, you’re pretty much stuck,” McAvoy said. “Small farmers are financially in a more precarious situation. Something like that might break some.

Governor Ron DeSantis has activated the Florida Small Business Emergency Bridge Loan Program through the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity for small businesses impacted by Hurricane Ian. At least $10 million of the $50 million will support agricultural producers.

After a full day of hurricane preparation on September 27, 2022, Farmer Daniel Robleto of Gainesville, Florida is seen here with his son.  Robleto said many Florida farmers recognize the state's climate is a gamble.

“Ten million dollars isn’t a lot of money,” McAvoy said. “A million dollars worth of tomatoes equals (about) 10 acres.”

The USDA also offers disaster assistance to farmers.

The funds can help farmers like the McMahon family who are dealing with flooding, scattered debris and long-term crop loss. Annual crops can regrow, but for fruit tree orchards, the damage seeps deeper. In the weeks following the hurricane, fruit and leaves will continue to fall, said Ray Royce, director of the Highlands County Citrus Growers Association. Once the citrus fruits fall to the ground, they can no longer be sold.

“It will take some time to see the full impact,” Royce said, “but in some areas we’re already seeing 50% of the fruit on the ground.”

Like the interior growing region, the barrier islands of southwest Florida are no strangers to hurricanes. A 1926 hurricane hit Sanibel Island, choking farmland there. Farmers have stopped sowing fruits and vegetables.

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Today, nearby Pine Island is famous for its mangoes, hosting a popular Mango Festival every summer. The Sapp family, rooted on the island on a mango farm, said in a Facebook post that they don’t know what’s left on the 25-acre Promised Land Mangoes property and won’t be able to return for a while. time.

Along both coasts of South Florida, water tables are rising high, constricting space for the roots of tropical fruit trees. This increases tree toppling.

In Sulcata Grove, a food forest in Sarasota about three miles from DeSoto Lakes, two live oaks and several fruit trees were uprooted in the hurricane’s wake. During the hurricane, avocados, loquats and white sapotes rested in the flooded ground. Their roots are now susceptible to rotting. Farm owner Celeste Welch is biding her time.

Photographs show damage days after Hurricane Ian hit Sulcata Grove, a family farm near Sarasota, Florida on September 28, 2022. Owner Celeste Welch said she and other farmers were waiting to assess their losses.

“Nature is something we just have to work with,” she said.

In January, many nursery crops, including mangoes, succumbed to the cold. The bananas recovered from the frost, but the wind knocked them down.

Welch applied for assistance through the Tree Assistance Program and the Noninsured Crop Disaster Program through the United States Department of Agriculture and received no assistance for the freeze. Now she doubts she will for the hurricane.

But Welch remains optimistic. It aims to replace uprooted avocados and mangoes with new varieties. She and her family straightened the downed trees and staked them against two-by-fours. And along the overthrown oaks grow orchids. Welch plans to nurture the vines with lavender in remembrance of the storm.

“When you see the trees falling, it’s part of Florida history,” she said.

Despite the mild weather, hurricanes are a risk to farming in Florida, said Gainesville farmer Daniel Robleto. He grew up in Palm Beach County and remembers falling beloved trees.

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“There are so many times where (farming) is really challenging and awesome,” he said, “and then I kind of go, ‘Why did I choose that?'”

When Hurricane Matthew brushed the East Coast in 2016, Robleto grew in Palm Beach. He said he peeked through the closed windows and saw the wind ruffling the greenhouse. Back then, lettuce and crops were sandblasted, punctured with needle-like stings, he said. But most survived.

“I remember we had arugula ready to pick, and we could still pick it after the 70 mph winds,” Robleto said.

Before Hurricane Ian landed, a handful of volunteers helped Robleto prepare Nicoya Farm. They placed tarps over the unplanted ground to prevent weed growth and rain-hardened clay, tied the tomatoes and peppers to a trellis and housed the seedlings in the barn, he said. His crops suffered minimal damage.

For Southern Fresh Farms, volunteers will be essential, McMahon said. After Hurricane Irma hit in 2017, about 40 people gathered at the farm to help with the flooded land.

This week, more than 100 people donated $21,050 to online fundraising site GoFundMe. McMahon said people arrived at the property in droves.

“There are hardly any words to express your gratitude,” he said. “It always, always gives hope to humanity in times like this.”

They start with brooms in hand and sweep up one trash can of debris at a time.

This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communication. The reporter can be reached at [email protected]

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