North Florida Farm Families Struggle with Hurricane Recovery

November 2023

Hurricane Idalia’s unrelenting fury devastated property and disrupted the lives of thousands of people in North Florida. Hundreds of family homes and business structures suffered damage or were lost as a result of the August storm.

Tentative insurance company estimates place the overall loss for Floridians at more than $9 billion. The lingering impact of the hurricane continues to plague a region extending from Jefferson County east to Columbia County and south to Levy County. The Florida Office of Insurance Regulation reported that by mid-October, private insurers had received 23,845 claims for damages caused by the storm.

The powerful tropical cyclone affected a largely rural and small-town population and, if current projections are correct, cost far less than last year’s Hurricane Ian (more than $63 billion). Idalia’s massive, long-term impact upon farm families has gradually slipped from outside attention.

Farmers and ranchers who suffered catastrophic losses face a special threat. Damage to their properties has hobbled the restoration of production. Without sufficient yields, their livelihoods are in jeopardy.

As Taylor County grower Billy Murphy explained, “Farmers operate on such thin margins that it doesn’t take much beyond a disaster like this to put you out of business.”

According to a preliminary report compiled by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the hurricane inflicted total agricultural losses of at least $447.9 million. In addition to the widespread agricultural destruction in the northern region of the state, some farm properties in Citrus, Hernando and Pasco counties also sustained major damage.

Crushing winds wiped out crops in the field and in greenhouses, fencing, barns, sheds and poultry housing. The storm also ruined equipment needed for daily operation. The list of farm products sacrificed to the disaster includes peanuts, corn, fruits, vegetables, honey, tree nuts, grains, poultry flocks, beef cattle, dairy cattle, cotton, shellfish and other aquaculture foods and timber stands.

All farmers and ranchers laboring to recover from ravages of the hurricane express concerns about the challenge they face.

William Carte, a Suwannee County beef cattle and peanut producer, said the hurricane nearly demolished his family’s home and blew apart a barn, two equipment shelters and a large amount of fencing. He estimates that the cost of farm replacements will be more than $250,000.

The immediate demands of daily farm labor keep him from attending to repairs. “I cannot even think about repairs right now because we need to harvest the peanuts,” Carte noted. Complete restoration of his farm may require a year of hard work and a substantial financial burden.

Nearby farm families are contending with comparable losses, he added. “Every chicken house in the county had damage, if they were not completely destroyed. Many of those houses will not be brought back into production. All livestock was hit extremely hard.”

Citrus growers in Florida and elsewhere in the United States depend upon the young trees grown in sealed greenhouses at Billy Murphy’s farm. By virtue of the controlled environment, the trees are free of disease. Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) officials certify the quality of his products and license their sale to growers.

Murphy’s greenhouses largely withstood the storm, but roof failure opened breaches in two of them, leaving the trees exposed to the surrounding environment. They were repaired by constant work within eight days, adding to overall restoration expenses of more than $168,000.

Now he faces an uncertainty over his ability to sell, imperiling his source of income. He has an emergency authorization from FDACS to market trees in Florida despite the roof failures. But the U.S Department of Agriculture’s regulations forbid him from shipping trees that were unprotected – even temporarily – to volume buyers in other states.

As a result of the federal quarantine, he could stand to lose $300,000 to $350,000 in future gross sales. “That is a bigger hit than the storm itself,” Murphy lamented.

At Buck Carpenter’s farm in Madison County the hurricane demolished a barn, scattering it in pieces for three-quarters of a mile. A tractor, a bailer and other machinery and equipment suffered major damage.

A grain, perennial peanut and hay farmer, Carpenter explained that “We were probably hit more than any of our neighbors.” Wind ruined 400 acres of hay and pushed army worms from other locations into the fields, threatening even more crops. He has initially estimated the overall loss at $175,000.

“It takes an extraordinarily large amount of cash to run a farm just for one day,” he pointed out. “The worst part of any natural disaster is that it is imperative that we continue production. That sometimes is impossible without a little bit of assistance.

“We are good stewards of the air, we are good stewards of the land, we are good stewards of the water,” Carpenter declared. Such stewardship does not assure stability after a disaster, he added. Delays in production can forfeit a livelihood. “Time is one natural resource we do not control. There is never enough of it. In periods like this, time is of the essence.”

Jeffery Hamrick, a Madison County beef cattle and hay producer, knows the truth of a slow recovery. He has worked to harvest hay before the first frost while replacing long stretches of fencing.

Soon after the hurricane passed, he found that a number of equipment shelters were wrecked. He also lost a substantial volume of hay. The collapse of fencing created a constant headache for him and his family. “We spent three weeks going around the perimeter of the properties just getting the cattle contained,” Hamrick said.

He pointed out that recovery imposes extraordinary demands. “It’s hard enough to factor in all of your input costs for normal production. Then, when you add the expenses from a storm like this, it hits home, and it makes a real change in operation.”

A cloud of discouragement has overtaken some farm families, potentially jeopardizing future food yields, Hamrick observed. He has seen evidence firsthand among beef cattle producers.

“Since the storm came through, we have noticed a larger amount of cattle moving through our sale barn,” Hamrick noted. “A lot of people do not want to rebuild. They are tired of fighting the struggle day in and day out in agriculture. They are going to sell out and retire.”

Exceptionally strong and persistent winds blasted through a swath three miles wide on either side of the Suwannee River, leaving Ricky Lyons and his family with both physical and emotional costs. Lyons, a Lafayette County beef cattle and hog producer, said they still are adjusting to the extent of the destruction.

The storm demolished two hog barns, a hay barn, two hay shelters and more than three miles of fencing on their property. It also ripped into several other barns. Uprooted oak trees crashed into two different corners of their home, ruining parts of a structure that has sheltered five generations of the family.

“I have farmed all of my life,” Lyons said. “A lot of these buildings have been put up over the years. To have it all destroyed in a matter of minutes is beyond comprehension. This is something you have to build up over a lifetime.”

The scale of the disaster prompted quick responses from farm families both in and outside of the affected area. They provided their fellow producers in need with water, generators, fuel and fencing materials as well as other supplies.

Florida Farm Bureau members formed a special committee to coordinate relief efforts. In one project they collaborated with members of the Florida Cattlemen’s Association and other agricultural groups to donate and deliver six semi-truck loads of fencing posts and other items.

The Florida Farm Bureau State Women’s Leadership Committee established a Hurricane Idalia Relief Fund to offer immediate aid for farmers and ranchers in the damaged region. These efforts exemplified the generosity and community spirit of farm families across the state.

But this help, welcome as it has been, will not enable many victims to resume production. The challenge of recovery is overwhelming for them. Temporary support from state and federal government may well determine the viability of their farm operations.

William Carte said farmers are generally left to their own capabilities for restoration. “There is no immediate, temporary financial assistance to get things repaired,” he explained.

Farm families in distress after the hurricane need “a hand up, not a handout,” according to Jeffery Hamrick. In his view a financial aid program for recovery, managed with a clear identification of losses to production capacity, repays society at large with continuous food security.

“Somehow, some way, we need checks and balances on the program to make sure people who really need help get it,” he said.

The bill for restoration at Ricky Lyons’ farm will be at least $330,000. Like neighboring farmers who experienced similar catastrophic losses, he has no immediate assistance for this work.

“People who are outside of farming do not understand the situation we face,” Lyons said. “They think you are making a lot of money. But the costs are so great to the producer and the margins are really thin.”

Billy Murphy pointed out that “I’ve never been one to ask for help.” But his precarious financial position has changed his mind. “Without some help, it is very possible that we could be out of business.”

The struggle for farm recovery is a matter that involves everyone, not just producers, he said. “We all need to eat. Farmers feed the world. I would think the people who are growing your food should be taken care of.”

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Wilton Simpson has highlighted the burden of farm recovery in the aftermath of the hurricane. In releasing the preliminary report on agricultural losses, he said “it’s clear that our state’s farmers, ranchers and growers – who we rely on daily for our food, fiber and more – have a long road to recovery.”

Despite the magnitude of the catastrophe, Simpson added, “We will work tirelessly with every local, state, federal and industry partner to ensure we support our agricultural producers to replant, rebuild and to recover.”

Note: For more information about the Farm Bureau program, visit Hurricane Idalia Relief Fund – Florida Farm Bureau.