By Jim Turner ©2023 The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — A preliminary report released Thursday by the University of Florida estimated up to $370.9 million in agricultural losses from Hurricane Idalia, which barreled through rural areas of North Florida in late August.
And losses could increase as damage to infrastructure and such things as timber are factored in.
Christa Court, director of the Economic Impact Analysis Program at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, pointed to a role the report could play amid recovery efforts from the Category 3 hurricane.
“We know that there’s a lot of decisions that are being made now, or in the near future at local levels, state levels,” Court said. “There’s a lot of discussions going on at federal levels and we want to make our information available to them as fast as possible so that they can make informed decisions.”
Idalia made landfall Aug. 30 in the Keaton Beach area of Taylor County before moving through parts of North Florida into Georgia. While powerful, Idalia had a relatively narrow path that crossed mostly sparsely populated areas that include many dairy and poultry farms and row crops.
“A lot of people don’t understand the extent of production agriculture in Florida or where their food comes from, even if they live outside of Florida,” Court said. “So, understanding not only the footprint of agriculture in this affected region, but the value of agriculture and the importance to the communities that have been impacted, I am hoping that message will get out.”
The report came as Florida leaders are clamoring for the federal government to approve Idalia funding, including aid to farmers and ranchers, before a possible government shutdown.
Idalia’s largest impacts were in rural Dixie, Hamilton, Lafayette, Madison, Suwannee and Taylor counties.
The university report estimated agricultural losses from the storm between $78.8 million and $370.9 million. The figures will be fine-tuned over the next few months as farmers and ranchers update information.
The biggest hit involved losses tied to livestock operations, including beef and dairy cattle, poultry, and shellfish aquaculture.
“More than 3.3 million acres of Florida’s agricultural lands were affected by Hurricane Idalia, of which almost 74 percent was grazing land,” the report said. “Over 177,000 acres of agricultural lands — 46 percent grazing land — were affected by major hurricane — Cat 3 — conditions.”
The ranch-land damages, which include fencing, livestock sheds, loss of feed, and watering points, could reach $123.4 million. Field and row crops suffered up to $93.6 million in losses.
Citrus growers, while not reporting widespread losses from Idalia, faced tropical storm conditions that could further hinder production by $21.9 million, according to the report.
Meanwhile, data is limited about such things as agriculture buildings, fences, machinery and equipment.
“Fencing is a big issue, especially with all of the downed trees in the affected areas,” Court said. “They have fallen on fences and some of the trees are large enough to make it too difficult to remove them with a chainsaw yourself. It is going to take a long time to not only clear the fallen trees but also to repair the fencing that may be being used for livestock.”
UF/IFAS has been collecting information on post-storm agricultural losses since 2017’s Hurricane Irma, which caused more than $2.5 billion in damage to the industry, with citrus growers and nurseries suffering big losses.
Hurricane Michael in 2018 produced $1.5 billion in damage to the industry in an eight-county region of the Panhandle, with the timber industry accounting for $1.28 billion of the losses. Last year, Hurricane Ian caused an estimated $1.03 billion in losses, with the biggest hits to the citrus industry, along with growers of vegetables and melons.
Aaron Keller, a spokesman for Florida Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson, said the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services continues to work on its own Idalia damage assessments.
The department typically has gone beyond the university’s survey to include structural and equipment damages.
The UF/IFAS report also doesn’t include stored harvested products affected by the storm, storm-preparation and clean-up expenses or impacts to processing, packing and distribution operations.
The report also, for example, leaves the assessment of timber damages to the Florida Forest Service.
“Early observations illustrate severe damage to apiculture, aquaculture, citrus, corn, cotton, dairy, environmental horticulture, peanuts, poultry, timber and a variety of fruit, vegetable and nut crops,” Simpson wrote to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack on Sept. 6. “In addition to crop and livestock losses, there is catastrophic loss to infrastructure.”
Overall Idalia insured losses top $200 million
Estimated insured losses from Hurricane Idalia have topped $200 million and continue to increase.
The Florida Office of Insurance Regulation posted data Thursday that showed insurers had reported an estimated $202.3 million in insured losses and 20,976 claims from the Category 3 hurricane, which made landfall Aug. 30 in Taylor County and barreled through parts of North Florida.
Those numbers were up from an estimated $188 million in insured losses and 20,151 claims on Monday.
The Thursday data showed 14,529 claims had been filed for residential property damage, with other types of claims for such things as auto damage. Insurers reported that 5,611 claims had been closed with payments, while 4,068 had been closed without payments.