Tomato fields in the Florida Panhandle were devastated when Hurricane Michael struck in October, wiping out the fall season for a number of growers, many of whom were small, independent operators, says Josh Freeman, associate professor and vegetable specialist at the University of Florida, Quincy. ( Josh Freeman )

Only a small percentage of Florida’s fall produce comes from the northern part of the state, but for growers in the Florida Panhandle, Hurricane Michael pretty much presented a worst-case scenario.

The hurricane, which hit in October, couldn’t have struck at a worse time, said Josh Freeman, associate professor and vegetable specialist at the University of Florida, Quincy.

Tomato, bell pepper and squash producers, who were among those hardest hit, were only about five days into their four- to six-week season.            

“They hadn’t really recouped anything,” Freeman said.

They lost at least 90% of their crops, he said.

Then, after sometimes spending three or four days clearing roads so they could get back into their fields, they found that the tomato stakes had been blown over, exposing half the plant to sun damage as temperatures soared into the 90s.

Even if growers were able to salvage some fruit, many packinghouses were damaged to the point that growers had to struggle with workarounds to pack their product.

“The fall season is gone” for growers in the affected area, which includes about 200 acres of bell peppers and 1,000 to 1,500 acres of tomatoes, Freeman said.

“It’s a shame, because most of the fields looked like they had a good crop,” he said.

The effects of the storm are far from over for growers there, about half of whom are small, independent operators with only 75 to 350 acres.

They grow in one production area, so they can’t make up their losses with product from other growing regions, Freeman said, and they only harvest for a total of 10 weeks each year during the fall and spring.

“For them, this was 50% of their market year gone,” Freeman said.

Growers hope they can obtain credit to finance repairs of damaged packinghouses, pumping systems and other equipment.

Michael snapped most of the stakes on which the tomatoes are grown, and Freeman said just the cost of replacing those at 30 cents per stake with 4,000 stakes per acre could be a significant financial hit.

“It’s absolutely nonstop expense between now and the spring season with no income,” he said.