TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Smaller supplies of higher-priced, lesser-quality vegetables may be Hurricane Wilma's gift to consumers this holiday season.
"Florida is just about the only domestic supplier of vegetables for Thanksgiving and Christmas," said Terence McElroy, press secretary for the Florida Department of Agriculture. "[Vegetables] have been battered pretty [bad] and there seems to be very little [supply] that's salvageable. Tomatoes, beans and sweet corn are a lot more vulnerable than citrus trees."
Smaller supplies of certain winter vegetables will probably need to be supplemented with lower-quality imported produce, said McElroy, who explained that Florida grows 60% to 70% of all the domestically grown winter fruits and vegetables.
"The price of tomatoes has already increased here in Florida," McElroy said. "I wouldn't be surprised if they've gone up [elsewhere]. If they haven't already, they will soon."
Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture farm service agents had yet to complete their crop assessments last week, the department's commissioner, Charles H. Bronson, anticipates there is more than $1 billion worth of crop damage, McElroy said.
Bronson and representatives from Florida Citrus Mutual, the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association and Florida Farm Bureau were expected to convene late last week to estimate the damage.
In an Oct. 27 letter to Gov. Jeb Bush, posted on FFVA's Web site, Bronson said he had "never witnessed such extensive devastation to our state's agriculture sectors as that caused by Hurricane Wilma."
Officials believe the largest segments impacted by the storm are "nurseries and horticulture, which tend to be concentrated in southern Florida, winter vegetables, sugar cane and citrus," McElroy said. Tropical fruits and aquaculture have also suffered losses.
Hurricane Wilma is thought to have reduced the overall citrus harvest for the upcoming season by 17% of the total crop, according to Lakeland-based Florida Citrus Mutual's preliminary projections. That's approximately 35.7 million boxes of fruit, valued at about $180 million in losses.
Thirteen percent of the state's orange crop, or 24.4 million boxes, are believed to be lost, according to Florida Citrus Mutual. Based on early estimates, grapefruit losses amounted to 47% of the state's crop, or 11.3 million boxes. Florida is regarded as the world leader in grapefruit production.
Citrus figures don't represent tree loss and re-planting costs, or damage costs associated with barns, equipment, processing and packing facilities. Also, fruit losses could be even higher as more fruit is expected to fall over the next few weeks, according to Florida Citrus Mutual. It has reported that Florida citrus growers are worried Hurricane Wilma may have increased the spread of citrus canker, a bacterial disease that is moved by wind-driven rain.
"In the past year alone, the state has or is scheduled to remove nearly 70,000 acres of citrus groves due to the spread of citrus canker after last year's storms," said Andy LaVigne, executive vice president and chief executive officer, Florida Citrus Mutual, in a statement.
Officials predicted any reduction in the citrus supply would drive up prices.
"Last year, Florida endured four major storms that devastated our citrus," McElroy said. "Those groves were coming back this year and they were hit again, so this is definitely not good news."
Ninety-six percent of the Florida orange crop is processed into orange juice. Florida citrus growers supply 80% of the U.S. orange juice supply and 38% of the world orange juice supply, according to Florida Citrus Mutual.
Still, Florida's produce outlook is not entirely gloomy. Officials speculated that certain crops, such as strawberries, okra, watermelon, cucumbers, eggplant, melons and squash, may have been spared the wrath of Wilma.
"Producers either dug out these vegetables in anticipation of the storm or they've already been harvested," said Frost Burke, spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture.
Also, there is a chance that growers may be overestimating their losses.
"The problem with these [natural disasters] is that everyone speculates how much they've lost and you don't know what's right," said Ray Gilmer, spokesman for FFVA. "People sometimes look at the damage and sometimes they get carried away. You might not see losses for a week or two down the road. You can't know how damaged a plant is until you've given it some time to recover."
Florida's farmers are working toward getting back in the game.
"We're still in the deal but we're coping with cleaning up and getting operations up and running," Gilmer said. "I can't speculate as to how much product will be out there, but [all Florida] producers will have at least a little product. We're not going to ship it unless it's high quality."