By Chrissy Wozniak
Founder of North American Ag
The magnificent power of the natural world never ceases to amaze me. Almost a year ago on September 28 2022, I rode out Hurricane Ian in a closet in my home with my family & dogs. I live in Lee County, Florida just a few miles directly east of where Ian made landfall as a rare Category 5 hurricane. One of the most impactful observations in the days immediately after the storm was what appeared to be the complete loss of all vegetation in the area. There were no leaves on the trees, everywhere you looked there was nothing more than twisted brown sticks in tangled masses surrounded by shingles and fence boards.
I wept over my own garden, for my vegetables that I had just planted for the winter growing season that were no longer, for the live oak in my yard that was entirely destroyed and for my young food forest that I had just established in my front yard that had just vanished. My thoughts and prayers naturally went to the local farmers whose livelihoods were washed away in an instant. And my heart broke for those who lost their lives, their homes, or their businesses. I imagined it would be many years before our county looked livable again.
The natural world is ruthless, it destroys, it culls the weak. But it’s never fully dead. What happened in the following months was the most astonishing thing I’d ever seen. Long before our roofs were fixed, before our windshields were replaced, before homes even started being replaced – nature started healing herself. Within weeks of the storm buds formed on the trees and plants started to wake up. By January the palms were standing green and tall again, ragged and tired looking yes, but alive and thriving despite all they had survived. At times over the following months, I wept again over this miracle of life and this innate resiliency that we tend to take for granted when times are easy.
Today, I attended the 2023 Summer Southwest Florida Small Farmer Network Meeting at Fruitscapes Fruit Tree Nursery & Fruit Market. This event is hosted by University of Florida IFAS Extension Agents in the region and was a farmer-led tour of FruitScapes in Bookelia to hear and see Hurricane Ian's impacts on the island and in the local agricultural community. This farm is only a few miles from my home and was practically ground zero for Hurricane Ian. What struck me immediately was how many in this group of growers, from Lee & Collier counties and beyond had worked hard to recover from such disasters, and their attitudes were both rational and hope filled.
The owner of Fruitscapes, Steve Cucura, has created a tropical fruit paradise on his farm. He started his talk with a timeline of hurricane hits and how they’ve evolved the farm and crop choice over time. The property was a citrus grove 50 years ago, but after being hit and devastated by hurricane Andrew in 1992 it was changed over to tropical fruit trees. The island was slammed again in 2004 by hurricane Charley, which once again decimated the farm. Steve purchased the farm in 2008, thinking “nothing could be worse than Charley… but then Hurricane Ian hit.” He stated that their avocado trees suffered the most damage, losing the majority of their crop. But the incredible mango, suited perfectly to this area – it’s dry winters and rainforest-like summers – was able to survive. Steve said, “After proper pruning these fruit trees are recovering.” He stated that they only lost 10% of the trees in the ground, although 100% of 2023 fruit production. Walking around the farm looking at these beautiful, full leafy green trees one would have a hard time believing that they were bare and looked tangled broken and dead just 10 months ago!
As we toured the farm, Steve told us that their metal greenhouse/shade structures were completely destroyed and could not be salvaged. Since Ian, in their place they developed a new shade system, one that’s much better suited to surviving the next hurricane that will inevitably hit the island. These new structures are made of telephone poles buried deep into the ground and are said to be stronger than their equivalent structures made of steel. With these new structures, once there’s a hurricane warning issued, they just need to zip through and tear down the shade cloth with razors, saving the structure itself from destruction. There will still be a price to pay of course, but managing in this way prevents total loss in the future. Steve showed us which plants did well through the storm, and which ones did not, which varieties they’ll concentrate on and which they’ll let go. Since life is ever changing and fluid, so must be the grower. Hope and positivity prevailed through the tour, and a realistic respect for what nature could dish up in the future.
During the presentations we also heard from the Florida State Agricultural Response Team, who told us about their experience sleeping on the floor and in closets for a week and a half as they coordinated help for farms, livestock and other animals post-storm. Their diligent work helped bring hay to the island, along with feed, dog food and even cat litter to farmers and families who could not help themselves in the aftermath. They stressed the importance of registering your livestock ahead of time, so that emergency teams know where to look when they arrive after a disaster.
Hurricane Ian caused $12.6 billion in insured losses. I’ve heard many people call us insane for living here, and even irresponsible for placing infrastructure in a place where destruction is always a threat. But I’ve lived through blizzards in Canada. I’ve driven on icy roads through the Rockys hoping that oncoming traffic stays in it’s own lane. I’ve been on the road in Iowa with my phone buzzing with tornado warnings not knowing which direction is safe to drive in. I’ve been in Missouri when the Mississippi River reached the top of the stop signs in the road. Nature is brutal no matter where you live, but we are resilient, and nature heals itself with astounding speed. I am better off having gone through Hurricane Ian, seeing humans at their best and nature at its fiercest. Then, 10 months later standing in the shade of a mango tree listening to how inspiring people turn the worst of events into a better operations and stronger communities.
Farmers are conditioned to roll with the punches, dealing with weather, pests & disease. Out of the ashes the best of them end up stronger, more resilient and come up with better ways to manage risk and prepare for the next round of tough times.
I think our Creator knew what He was doing when He gave us the wrath of nature, along with its ability to heal and make us stronger.
To hear more about the impact of Hurricane Ian on Southwest Florida listen to our podcasts Surviving Hurricane Ian: Firsthand Accounts (forgive the lack of makeup and crazy hair!) and Abundant Love in the Form of Food After Hurricane Ian.
The Southwest Florida Small Farmer Network is a peer-to-peer network focused on exploring diversified and sustainable farming systems. The group is open to established and beginning farmers in Southwest Florida.