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Hurricane Wilma - One year late.

Saturday, Nov. 4, 2006 | Updated at 3:30 a.m. By Laura Layden (Contact) Saturday, October 28, 2006 Temple Citrus Grove opened for season this week and longtime customers started trickling in. While Thursday`s opening didn`t seem so monumental, it was for the owners who a year ago weren`t sure whether the nearly 40-year-old gift and produce stand off Airport-Pulling Road would make it through another season. The grower took a hit from Hurricane Wilma, losing trees and fruit. "We didn`t have power," recalled Michelle McCauley, an owner and retail manager. "You can`t do anything without power." The business opened up on generators last season. Trees saw so much damage from Wilma that the owners had to ration fruit. This season is looking much better than last for Temple Citrus and other area growers who survived the Category 3 storm, the first to directly hit Collier County in 45 years. "We actually ran out of grapefruit last year," McCauley said. "But we are going to be OK this year." Wilma walloped the region`s growers, causing an estimated $2.2 billion in agricultural damage statewide. The timing couldn`t have been much worse the storm came right before harvest. The region`s vegetable growers were among the hardest-hit. Some have since gone under, citing hurricane damage as a reason. "Wilma hurt a lot of people," said Gene McAvoy, a regional vegetable agent with the Hendry County Extension Office in LaBelle. Photo Gallery Harvest a good recovery For the region`s citrus growers, prices this season may be some of the highest they`ve seen in several years. That`s because the state`s orange crop is predicted to be the smallest in nearly two decades. A shorter supply usually results in higher prices for growers and consumers. On Oct. 12, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released the first forecast for the season, predicting Florida growers would produce 135 million boxes of oranges, the smallest crop since the 1989-90 season, when trees were hit by a damaging freeze. Last season, the state`s growers produced 147.9 million boxes of oranges and 19.3 million boxes of grapefruit. This year, growers are expected to harvest 26 million boxes of grapefruit. The smaller orange crop is blamed on cooler weather in February that damaged blooms before they could become fruit, along with hurricane damage and diseases, such as citrus canker and greening. Mark Colbert, general manager for Duda Farm Fresh Foods` LaBelle grove, said trees continue to show stress from Wilma. Some are still on the ground, but they`re alive, he said. "Probably the biggest thing for us has not been the storm or development, it has been citrus canker," Colbert said. In Hendry County, Duda Farm lost 2,300 bearing acres to the state`s failed citrus canker program, which required growers to remove diseased trees and to destroy so-called exposed trees within a 1,900-foot radius. Replacement trees will be hard to come by in the next two to three years as the nursery industry fights for a comeback from hurricanes that wiped out much of its stock. "I won`t even get trees until fall 2007," Colbert said. "So I`m looking at eight or nine or 10 years to get back to where I was before the citrus canker eradication program." The grower did receive compensation from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for trees lost to canker. "The USDA really came through like champs with a lot of money to get everybody paid off," Colbert said. "But if we could wave our magic wand, we wish we would have never heard of canker, and have all our trees, rather than an indemnity check." While the outlook for juice oranges is good this season, fresh fruit growers face more challenges because the USDA and the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services have imposed restrictions on the movement of fruit from canker-infected groves. The fruit can`t be shipped anywhere in the U.S. or to the European Union and can only go to countries or markets where there`s already canker, Colbert said. And the fruit and packing houses have to undergo more rigorous inspections since the canker program ended. "We`re doing the best we can and I think we`ll do OK," Colbert said. "But we us and the rest of the fresh fruit packers are trying to learn to live with these new canker rules and regulations." Like the larger commercial citrus growers, Temple Citrus in North Naples has seen its productivity cut by hurricane damage and cooler weather earlier this year. It too will have fewer oranges than it has in past years. But the grower will still have more fruit than last year. The owners plan to keep prices the same this season, despite a shorter supply of oranges statewide. McCauley said she`s glad to welcome back customers for another season. Last season was one of the grove`s toughest after Wilma knocked down so many trees. "It was OK," she said. "We were glad to have survived. We weren`t so sure in the beginning. It`s because we have such great customers." NAPLESNEWS.COM

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