LABELLE, Fla. (WBBH) – LaBelle orange grower Wayne Simmons tried to stay optimistic that his groves would be spared by Hurricane Ian’s fury. That optimism faded the closer the storm churned.
“About three o’clock, it started cranking up,” Simmons recalled. “Lost power at four. And then from four on, it was just non-stop.”
Now, weeks later, the impact on his groves is obvious. Countless oranges were blown clear off the trees and are no longer salvageable. They’re rotting in the dirt.
“If we were to split it open, it would certainly be a rancid smell,” Simmons said while picking up an orange.
Of the variety that’s harvested first – in just a couple of months – he estimates he lost up to 70% of his crop.
Statewide, researchers from the University of Florida estimate Ian caused somewhere between $150 to $300 million in losses to the citrus industry.
“It’s kind of like a rubber band. It can stretch so long – and then it snaps,” Simmons explained. “We’re getting real close to it.”
In the early 2000s, Florida’s orange industry was dominant and iconic, producing nearly 250 million boxes a year.
But then came the diseases, like citrus greening, and storms like Hurricane Irma, among other factors.
This season, the USDA was forecasting just 28 million boxes for the state – the smallest output since World War II.
And that forecast came out before Ian cut through Florida.
“(It’s) probably gonna be somewhere between 20-22 million,” Simmons said. “I’m hoping it’s not any worse than that. But time will tell.”
Time too, will tell for Simmons. The 5th generation Floridian is spending his retirement to keep his groves going. How much longer he can hold on, he isn’t sure. What he is sure of is why he still does it.
“Well, the mentality that you think you can overcome it,” he said, choking up. “That there’s hope at the end of the tunnel. That I’ll get there.”
He worries about the industry as a whole.
“We were at a point before Ian, that in 2 or 3 years, if something didn’t happen, it was gonna be gone,” Simmons said. “Maybe this has speeded it up.”
Most of Florida’s oranges are used to make juice. The cost to buy it is already at an all-time high, and that could now rise even higher after Ian.
If you can afford it, buy Florida Natural orange juice. That helps support local growers.