If Hurricane Dorian makes landfall mid-way up Florida’s Atlantic Coast – as many models predicted Thursday afternoon – the storm could devastate not only Central Florida tourist destinations, but also the region’s agricultural areas, which include significant acreage devoted to citrus, vegetable, ornamental plant and cattle production.
Economists and Extension faculty with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences are already preparing to estimate agricultural losses after Dorian passes, said Saqib Mukhtar, associate dean for agricultural programs with UF/IFAS Extension.
“While at this time, the exact strength and landfall location of Dorian are unknown, UF/IFAS Extension agents and specialists are ready and committed to support Florida’s agricultural and natural resources-based industries,” Mukhtar said. He explained that UF/IFAS Extension focuses primarily on gathering loss data for crops and livestock within the state; estimates for forestry and fisheries losses are handled by other government agencies.
Due to uncertainties about Dorian’s path, UF/IFAS personnel are currently preparing to analyze a 21-county region in Central Florida, said economist Christa Court, director of the UF/IFAS Economic Impact Analysis Program. Home to 9 million people, the region is roughly square and its “four corners” include Brevard and Martin counties on the Atlantic Coast, Citrus and Sarasota counties on the Gulf Coast.
“This region is obviously a major tourism region with the Orlando theme parks as well as attractive beaches on both coasts,” Court said. “But agriculture plays a major role in the area as well.”
Crop and livestock production, forestry and fishing in the 21-county region generated more than $4.22 billion in revenues and directly supported more than 63,000 jobs in 2017, the most recent year for which data are available.
Overall, the region includes nearly 750,000 acres in agricultural production, a figure that does not include grazing land, Court said. More than 500,000 head of beef and dairy cattle are also found here.
“The big categories in the region, in terms of acreage, are citrus, vegetables grown for the fresh market, hay, sod, non-citrus fruit, and nursery and greenhouse crops,” Court said.
“In terms of dollar value,” she continued, “the region’s biggest industries, in descending order, are fruit farming, including citrus and non-citrus fruits; support activities for agriculture and forestry; production of nursery, greenhouse and floriculture crops; vegetable and melon farming; beef cattle ranching; and dairy cattle and milk production.”
Regarding employment, the region’s largest industries, in descending order, are fruit farming; support activities for ag and forestry; production of nursery, greenhouse and floriculture crops; beef cattle ranching; and vegetable and melon farming, Court said.
As they have done in previous years, UF/IFAS Extension agents will fan out across their home territories after the storm, interviewing operations managers and property owners to obtain first-hand estimates of crop losses, which are then used by the Economic Impact Analysis Program to estimate the total agricultural losses for the impacted region, and passed along to state and federal officials who use the estimates in developing plans for relief efforts, and in support of decision-making related to agricultural resilience.
Aside from the UF/IFAS Extension county offices along Florida’s Atlantic Coast, the two UF/IFAS facilities likely to experience Dorian’s fury first are the UF/IFAS Medical Entomology Laboratory in Indian River County and nearby Indian River Research and Education Center in St. Lucie County.
Ron Cave, director of Indian River Research and Education Center, said personnel there have already made preparations.
“We are taking precautions to protect all UF property, to manage flooded citrus groves and to care for the students living in our dorms,” Cave said. “After Dorian passes, we will be ready to assess the consequences to the Treasure Coast’s agricultural community and assist in getting back to normal.”
Mukhtar added that UF/IFAS encourages all Floridians to monitor news reports and make appropriate preparations now.
“UF/IFAS Extension has offices in all 67 counties that will be open Friday, Aug. 30 and ready to answer questions from producers and residents,” he said.