Industry confident of rebound
Long after Hurricane Richard dissipated over Mexico, its after-effects continue to reverberate among residents of the Stann Creek Valley, which took the brunt of its power at landfall on October 24.
The citrus industry, which for some 113 years has been the backbone of the area’s economic development, has taken a major blow, right at the start of the 2010-11 crop season, after Richard blew over many citrus groves and tore down houses, leaving many families out of house and home.
Today, the Citrus Growers Association (CGA) met with about 40 of the most affected growers at its headquarters on the Stann Creek Valley Road, to update them on the official damage assessment estimate and take their individual assessments as part of a wider report designed to access needed funding for the expected recovery.
Some 80% of the forecast grapefruit crop (1 million boxes) for 2010-11, amounting to 803,000 boxes, and some 24% of the forecast orange crop (5.6 million boxes), about 1.3 million boxes, were lost on 282 farms in the Stann Creek and Cayo Districts from Jones Bridge at Silk Grass up to farms as far west as San Ignacio Town and as far east as More Tomorrow and St. Matthew’s. After plugging in the monetary values, the CGA came up with a final figure of $32.5 million, which does not include damage to citrus trees and recovered oranges and grapefruits.
The loss was heaviest in the upper Stann Creek valley, where in farms in Mullins River and Middlesex as many as 100% of certain groves were wiped out.
Richard landed on Belize’s shores just three days after the start of crop season 2010-11, and while the factories are taking in recovered mature fruit, the loss of immature fruit still represents a missed opportunity for the growers.
But the hardiness of the orange/grapefruit tree and its natural response to adversity lead the CGA’s agronomists to suggest that 2011 and 2012, if the growers hurry to take advantage of the opportunity, may see bumper crops of oranges and grapefruits and an earlier-than-expected recovery for the industry.
With that hope firmly in mind, Eccleston Irving, newly appointed chairperson of the CGA Committee of Management, and Association CEO Henry Anderson led the growers through a discussion of the Association’s plans to assist growers in the short and long term.
According to Irving, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries is being lobbied for assistance to help replace lost trees, and a fertilizer program, it is hoped, will hit the ground running if the Association can get commitments from the Social Security Board, Development Finance Corporation and some major lenders from abroad, including the Latin American Development Bank, which has met with CGA executives, and OIRSA, which donated a $200,000 greenhouse system to replace the one damaged at the CGA compound.
The CGA’s revolving fund will be making small grants to growers for immediate assistance, and in addition to requiring no payments into the fund for a short period, the Association will lobby SSB and DFC to restructure the facilities of certain growers and secure a loan for assistance for others.
Another worry is the reappearance of citrus greening, which the Association hopes to combat with assistance for vector control.
Growers largely approved of the Association’s plans, but many need humanitarian assistance as well and complain that the National Emergency Management Organization (NEMO) has been largely silent since the hurricane. (We spoke to a few of them and will have more in a separate story.) They also lost other crops, including nutmeg, plantain, pineapple, coconut and others.
Amandala asked Anderson to compare Richard’s destruction to that of Hurricane Iris, which hit the south Stann Creek/Toledo area in October of 2001, and the floods caused by Tropical Depression 16 in October of 2008. He stated in response that Richard more directly affected the citrus industry, because of where it made landfall, than Iris did.
According to Anderson, Iris, which was a major (Category 4) hurricane with winds at about 150 miles per hour, hit too far south to affect more than a few citrus farms, while Richard steamrolled through the very heart of the Valley and caused much damage, despite being a minimal (Category 1) hurricane with top winds of 90 miles per hour, and held its power throughout its passage over Belize.
In related industry news, the CGA is disputing the first price submission of 2010-11 by Citrus Products of Belize Limited (CPBL) for $10.63 per box of oranges after determining that CPBL had broken an agreement to use a specific closing date for the international market price. The day CPBL chose happened to coincide with the bottom of the market before it started inching up. Rival Belize Citrus Mutual (BCM) has accepted the submission, but the CGA is holding out for a higher price and is currently in negotiations.