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On a crystal-clear morning in late March, almost six months after Hurricane Ian ravaged Southwest Florida, Liz and Mick Jager walked me through their 10-acre farm in south Fort Myers. The couple bought the property in 2021 and christened it EFC Farms—for Earth, Family, Community. In short order, they set about producing tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, herbs, microgreens, mushrooms, lettuce, honey and eggs. They sold their produce at their on-property farm stand, at farmers markets around the county and directly to local chefs and restaurants. But like many growers across the area, EFC Farms was decimated by Hurricane Ian.

As I walked with the Jagers, they detailed the extent of the damage for me: 7 feet of brackish water across the entire property; the open-air market building where they sold produce destroyed; the shipping container where they grew microgreens wiped out; 100 chickens drowned; 22 beehives flooded; 1,000 tilapia—the key to their aquaponic system for growing lettuce—dead. Each new detail was sadder than the one before it.

As we talked, their three pups raced around us, stopping to sniff at patches of bare earth. The couple is new to farming. Liz, 30, is an industrial engineer by training and Mick, 32, served in the U.S. Army. Before becoming farmers, they both worked in the tech industry. “When COVID happened, we were really miserable in our work-from-home jobs,” Liz Jager said. “We wanted to do something more with our time on this planet than stare at computer screens all day.”

During the pandemic, the couple built a hydroponic system in their kitchen, where they grew their own tomatoes and cucumbers. Soon, tending to their plants became the best part of their day. When they learned that the farm property in south Fort Myers was for sale, they decided to make the leap into full-time agriculture. They’d owned EFC Farms for one year before the storm hit.

The couple described walking the farm the day after the storm, when shin-high water still covered the property. Downed trees were everywhere. Farm equipment lay tumbled on its side. Their aquaponic system was in ruins.

“Our first priority was to save the chickens,” Liz Jager said. “Everything was still flooded, but we walked out there with buckets and tubs to grab the chickens that had survived. We put them in a storage container and rebuilt the chicken coop as quickly as we could.” About 60 of the original flock made it. “We had a lot of egg salad in those days.”

The Jagers had initially been optimistic about their bees, even after the hives flooded. “We thought we had some survivors,” Mick Jager said. “But then we had a hive beetle infestation and wax moths later down the line and mites—all of it because our swarms were sick and their food source was wiped out. The storm hit at prime time for budding, right when the Brazilian peppers were supposed to bloom.” All of the bees eventually died.

The farm was without power for two months, and the backup generators flooded in the storm, so it was impossible to aerate the 5,000-gallon tanks where the tilapia lived. The tilapia produced waste that served as a powerful fertilizer for the farm’s locally famous lettuce. Without aeration, the tilapia couldn’t survive. The fish all died except for one lone survivor, a tilapia they named Timmy who gets to live out his days in a small tank inside the barn.

The barn is home to another survivor: a cat named Sylvester who rode out the storm, nobody knows where. He watched from a perch high above the floor as the Jagers and I sat and talked about what the damage from Ian means for the future of their farm and farms like theirs. Their insurance won’t cover the damages, and though the federal government has disaster assistance for agriculture operations, the process is long and cumbersome and the returns are minimal compared to the initial investment. Like many small agriculture operations across Southwest Florida, EFC Farms faces a daunting road to recovery.

Scale of devastation

In February, the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, or IFAS, released a report on agricultural losses from Hurricane Ian. The numbers were staggering: The report put the total loss to the Florida agriculture industry at $1.03 billion. The citrus industry was the biggest loser with $247 million in damages. Vegetables and melons lost $204 million. Field and row crops lost $130 million. Livestock lost $119 million.

The damaged areas follow the path of the storm—starting in coastal Lee, Charlotte, Sarasota and Manatee counties and moving inland to Hardee, DeSoto, Glades, Highlands and Polk—right through the state’s agricultural belt. The report estimates that roughly five million acres of agricultural land were affected by the storm. In terms of overall acreage affected, field and row crops—which include sugarcane and hay—experienced the most damage with 1,077,427 acres affected. Citrus groves saw 375,302 acres damaged, and 159,272 acres of vegetables and melons were affected. Together, these acres produce nearly $8 billion of agricultural products throughout a calendar year.

“The losses were significant,” says Christa Court, director of the Economic Impact Analysis Program at the University of Florida and one of the researchers who contributed to the IFAS report. “Some crops will bounce back very quickly, and some might take years.”

For crops that are planted two to three times in a calendar year, such as tomatoes, the recovery time until a profitable harvest will be minimal. But for citrus and other perennial crops, where trees have been damaged or destroyed, recovery will take a while.

Citrus slump

For citrus growers, Hurricane Ian hit at an especially bad time. The industry has struggled in recent years, between the devastating effects of citrus greening and the damage caused by Hurricane Irma in 2017.

In its first forecast report of the 2022-23 season, released just two weeks after Hurricane Ian, the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicted Florida orange production would be down 32% from the previous season. In that report, the USDA projected 28 million boxes of oranges for the season, compared with 41 million boxes from the 2021-22 season, 52.9 million from the 2020-21 season and 67.4 million boxes from the 2019-20 season. But in July the USDA released the final 2022-23 season forecast, and the numbers were much worse than predicted: just 15.85 million boxes of oranges, the lowest number since the Great Depression.

“It’s been a lot to deal with,” says Steve Smith, executive vice president of the Gulf Citrus Growers Association. “We were hopeful right before the storm that some of the research we’d been doing to battle greening was starting to pay off. We were seeing good results on some of the therapies to help the citrus trees be more viable. Now, after the storm, growers have less income to reinvest in those therapies. But they’re doing it anyway. They’re continuing to fight and put money in the groves, recognizing that there is light at the end of the tunnel if we can just get through this year when everybody is cash-strapped from the storm.”

Despite the challenges, Smith insists that there’s optimism within the citrus industry. “Hopefully we’re bouncing off the bottom now, and we’ll see some increase in production over the next few years. That way, we can keep putting orange juice on the shelves.”

Big hits to small operators

Though both small and large growers were affected by the storm, they didn’t bear the brunt of the damage equally. “In our local area, it was the smaller operations—U-pick farms and farmers markets—that were hurt most,” says Fritz Roka, an expert in agriculture economics and the director of Florida Gulf Coast University’s Center of Agribusiness. “In Lee County specifically, a number of smaller urban-type operations were totally devastated. They were doing a robust business and very active in the local market, but they aren’t the corporate players that we have in the interior.”

Those corporate players took a lot of damage, especially the tomato growers that were in the middle of their harvest season, but they have an advantage that small farms don’t: geographic diversification. “These companies have operations that expand outside the state,” Roka says. “Once growing season is done in south Florida, they move up to north Florida or out of state to South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia and even into Pennsylvania. They might lose money now because of the hurricane, but by the summer they’ll be harvesting somewhere else.”

That’s how the bigger operations manage, he says, “But if you’re a single operator locked in one location, you have a different set of challenges.” One of those challenges? The customer base. Even for small local growers who weren’t physically damaged by the storm, the subsequent loss of revenue was equally destructive.

Russell Hollander’s specialty mushroom operation, Care2Grow, was spared direct damage from the storm, but his business nonetheless faced serious economic injury from Ian. “I serve most of Naples,” Hollander says, “especially the restaurants and country clubs, and they were completely wiped out.” The Third Street farmers market, where he does a lot of his business, was shut down. The clubhouse of his biggest client, Bay Colony, was closed until February.

“We’re such a small farm that we’re really specifically growing for each of our customers. My production doesn’t stop just because the orders drop off.” After the storm, Hollander donated two weeks’ worth of gourmet mushrooms to a local community kitchen, taking the unsold mushrooms as a loss. “That was huge. It’s a lot of money for me right now.”

Bouncing back

But even in the wake of devastation, there were surprising moments of grace for local farmers. For Danny Blank of 12 Seasons Farm in North Fort Myers, which specializes in heirloom and artisan produce, the hurricane came with a greater appreciation for this community. All of the farm’s greenhouses were damaged—three completely destroyed—avocados and citrus trees were knocked down; the tomato crop was flooded. “It was devastating and a bit overwhelming,” Blank says. “But I just didn’t have time to be disappointed or upset.”

In the immediate aftermath of Ian, help poured in from the surrounding community. Volunteers gave their time to set the farm right; welding the greenhouses, clearing debris and helping with the planting. Within 48 hours of the storm, 12 Seasons had new tomato plants in the ground. Blank and his crew were able to harvest their first tomatoes in early January—late but not a total loss for the season. And though the farm went five weeks with no sales, it finished the winter season with a strong harvest. All the silt from the river that had flooded the property was good for the soil. “It’s amazing how fast things recover,” Blank says. “Life is so resilient.”

Photo By Brian Tietz

Rebuild and regrow

Nearly six months after the storm, the Jagers were putting their farm in south Fort Myers back together. There were new chickens in the coop that would be laying by the summer. Their farm stand was under construction and would be ready for the winter season. Five new beehives had been installed, with plans for 10 more. They were working to reconfigure their aquaponic system.

Hurricane Ian provided a slew of important lessons, the kind of hard-won knowledge that gives old farmers their wisdom. It’s impossible not to wonder how farmers face the uncertainty of growing things each day, knowing that a storm like Ian can come in and wipe it all away. “There are no bigger gamblers than growers under our Florida conditions,” FGCU’s Roka told me, and I worried about the Jagers and their new farm. Had Ian dissuaded them from the farming life? Would they sell their acreage to a developer like so many small farms across our area?

“There’s no chance in hell,” Mick Jager says.

“Our ultimate mission is to make an impact on the earth and our community,” Liz Jager says. “No dollar amount is going to change that.”

Like generations of growers before them, that means they’ve only got one option: to roll up their sleeves and get back to work.

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