Florida vegetable and citrus producers were hit hard this year by a succession of tropical storms during August and September. As a result, Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman announced in late October that payments would be made to affected growers under the Florida Hurricane Disaster Assistance Program.

These funds — totaling more than $500 million — could provide a much-needed boost to Florida's agriculture industry, say officials with the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association.

Fruit and vegetable producers must have suffered a minimum of a 50-percent crop loss. Per-acre payments are based on the type of production practices utilized by producers. Payments to citrus producers are based on damages generally correlating to the distance from the eyes of the hurricanes and are for production loss, tree loss, rehabilitation and cleanup costs.

Many vegetable producers in Florida delayed fall field preparation and planting this year until the threat of tropical storms had passed, especially during September.

Wind and heavy rain from Tropical Storm Bonnie and the remnants of Hurricane Ivan caused some yield loss for tomatoes in the Quincy area with harvesting under way by late September. Some east coast growers increased acreage planted in other areas to compensate for losses caused by the hurricanes.

Producers in the Immokalee and Palmetto-Ruskin regions rebuilt flattened rows and relaid plastic blown about by the strong winds of Hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne, but they experienced only minor losses of plants.

Virtually all Dade County acreage escaped significant damage from the storms with most harvested as a winter crop.

The latest crop estimates for vegetables grown in Florida are as follows:

Snap beans: Acreage to be picked is set at 10,000 acres, equal to the acreage harvested during the fall of 2003. Dade County acreage received very little damage from the tropical storms passing over the state during August and September. Most growers delayed planting until the threat of tropical weather passed.

Cabbage: Growers hope to harvest 500 acres, equal to the acreage cut during the fall of 2003. Producers were spared significant damage from the hurricanes since no acreage was planted until the storms passed.

Cucumbers for fresh market: Acreage to be picked this fall is estimated at 4,500 acres or 200 acres below the 4,700 acres picked last fall. Most growers delayed planting until the threat of tropical storms passed, with only a very small acreage lost due to stormy, windy weather.

Sweet corn: Producers expect to pick 4,500 acres this fall, down 300 acres from the 4,800 acres harvested last fall. Beginning in late August, windy, stormy weather, caused by tropical systems crossing the state, prevented growers from planting all intended acres and damaged earlier planted fields. Many producers delayed planting due to the threat of tropical storms.

Bell peppers: Acreage to be picked this fall is set at 4,900 acres. This compares with 4,500 acres harvested last fall. Most growers put off planting until the threat of tropical storms passed.

Tomatoes: Producers hope to pick 12,000 acres this fall, down 2,200 acres or 15 percent from the 14,200 acres harvested last fall. Acreage in the Quincy area was hit by tropical systems, Bonnie and, to a lesser extent, Ivan, in August and mid-September. Quincy area growers started picking at the end of September. Most acreage in the Immokalee area received rain and some wind from the remnants of Hurricane Ivan as the system passed over into the Gulf of Mexico in late September. However, the acreage escaped severe consequences from Hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne.

Growers in the Palmetto-Ruskin area lost most plastic laid and a small amount of plants due to the storms. Most acreage in the east coast region, around Jupiter and Stuart, received severe damage from Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne with some east coast producers increasing acreage planted in other areas of the state.

Winter crop planting around Homestead is mostly on schedule with some delays caused by the threat of tropical systems during mid-to late-September.

For the United States as a whole, the prospective area for harvest of 11 selected fresh market vegetables during the fall quarter is forecast at 163,900 acres, up less than 1 percent from last year. Acreage increased for snap beans, broccoli, cabbage, head lettuce, and bell peppers while acreage decreased for carrots, celery, sweet corn, and tomatoes.

e-mail: phollis@primediabusiness.com