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Florida's west coast bears brunt of hurricane destruction

Soon after the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration announced that Hurricane Irma’s path had changed to a westward direction, growers along western Florida took action to try to protect and save plantings, facilities and equipment.

The young plants in greenhouses were originally destined to grow into Florida’s fall fruit and vegetable season, but the damage and devastation caused by Irma has changed the plan.oakOakes Farms' major packinghouse badly damaged by Hurricane Irma, leaving just half of its Seed to Table logo intact.

On Friday, Sept. 9, Steve Veneziano, vice president of Oakes Farms in Immokalee, FL, said the company had about 5 million young plants in various stages of growth in greenhouses, and some recently planted in fields in Florida when the threat of the storm was announced. Alfie Oakes, company owner, took immediate action and had as many plants as possible moved to safer locations.

“It’s pretty scary to have the transplants in the greenhouses,” Veneziano said on Friday. “If they decide to cut the plastic to prevent the greenhouses from being blown down, it could flood all the plants.”

It turned out that damage was much worse than anyone anticipated at the time.

“Oakes was able to move approximately 70 percent of our plants, but it is unknown how many of those will survive,” Veneziano said on Monday morning. “Everything that was already planted in the ground is 100 percent destroyed, and every commodity — peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, squashes and eggplant — was lost.”

He added that the squashes and cucumbers can be replanted and would take two-and-a-half to three weeks to get into the ground, depending of the company’s ability to access the fields.”

“Our best-case scenario at the moment is that there will be zero production of tomatoes, peppers or eggplant in the Immokalee area until January,” he noted. “In cases where varieties require more time to mature, that could be late January to early February.”

The plastic covering on the young plants was almost totally blown off by the storm’s strong and lingering winds that started in the early hours Sunday and lasted throughout most of the day. Veneziano said even the drip tape was blown away.

Oakes’ neighboring farmers are experiencing the same or similar loses, and the damage extends across the state.

“Many local growers suffered the same or worse damage than we did,” he said. “I have also spoken to some growers on the east coast of Florida who are reporting similar damage. It was a massive-size storm that enveloped the entire state from coast to coast.”

The damage extends to personal loss and inconvenience. Veneziano said he had to drive for about an hour to get a cell phone signal so he could use his mobile phone.

“There is no power in Naples or Immokalee this morning,” he pointed out. “I was told it could be weeks before power is restored in all areas around my home and the farms.

“As I was driving at pre-dawn this morning, it felt like I was driving through a war zone,” he added.