Palm Beach County vegetable crops back on track post-Irma

12:05 p.m Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017 Local
Green beans are among the crops being harvested in western Palm Beach County, famous for its winter vegetable production. Provided.

Palm Beach County’s vegetable farming industry is largely recovered from Hurricane Irma, which ripped through the area in September, destroying early plantings and delaying the plantings of sweet corn, green beans and other holiday favorites.

Florida citrus growers were harder hit and could take years to recover. On Sept. 10, Irma moved through the center of the state pounding Florida’s major citrus producing regions with up to 110 mph winds and 15 inches of rain.

The hurricane blew fruit off the trees and caused widespread tree damage. A Florida Citrus Mutual survey of growers conducted after Irma pegged total fruit loss at almost 60 percent with some reports of 100 percent fruit loss in the Southwest part of the state. Since then, fruit has continued to drop and some root systems have rotted.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has forecast this season’s Florida orange crop to be the smallest since 1945 at 46 million 90-pound boxes. The crop could be smaller than California’s.

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Florida agriculture could receive $2.6 billion in disaster assistance if an $81 billion disaster spending bill proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives comes to fruition. The citrus industry alone suffered $760 million in Irma-related losses.

Irma also dumped excess rain on the fields around Lake Okeechobee in the Everglades Agricultural Area. Then more rain arrived over the next few weeks, drenching and flooding fields. Farmers couldn’t get crews or equipment into the soggy fields to plant the crops.

“It kept raining every three or four days in October. It was a real trial,” said Paul Allen, vice president and co-owner of 8,000-acre R.C. Hatton Farms in Pahokee.

Allen said sweet corn is being harvested at his farm, but green bean supplies are limited.

While farmers are receiving about twice the normal price for green beans, the vegetable is going for an average of $1.69 a pound at supermarkets in the Southeast, up from $1.33 at the same time a year ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service reports.

Allen said Glades area fields are being planted with crops to be harvested in March.

“We are into our winter production that goes through January, February and March,” Allen said.

Known as the nation’s winter vegetable capital, Palm Beach County is a major producer of leafy greens and vegetables. It has more than 450,000 acres in agricultural use, the majority of it in sugar cane.

Brett Bergmann, president and co-owner of grower-shipper Branch: A Family of Farms, headquartered in South Bay, said Tuesday, “Things are back to normal.”

Produce supplies were delayed, but now are on par with last year, Bergmann said.

Branch grows, ships and packs corn and beans from Florida, Georgia and other places and also grows and ships leafy greens, radishes and celery.

Gene Duff, vice president and general manager, Pioneer Growers Cooperative, Belle Glade, said green bean and sweet corn crops were delayed, but those are now being shipped to retailers along with radishes and cabbage.

Pioneer Growers is a grower owned marketing cooperative specializing in fresh sweet corn and mixed vegetables including green beans, radishes, and cabbage.

“Supplies should return to normal later this month or the first of the year,” Duff said.

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