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After Hurricane Ian, sowing hope

Robert McMahon, Southern Fresh Farms owner, and friend Jake Stevens rebuild the roof that shelters animals on the Fort Myers farm on Oct. 8. The wooden roof had collapsed as Hurricane Ian tore through. (Florida Climate Institute/Katie Delk)
Robert McMahon, Southern Fresh Farms owner, and friend Jake Stevens rebuild the roof that shelters animals on the Fort Myers farm on Oct. 8. The wooden roof had collapsed as Hurricane Ian tore through. (Florida Climate Institute/Katie Delk)

Editor's note: Katie Delk is a 2022-2023 Florida Climate Institute Fellow reporting a series of articles about the impact of climate change on Florida’s farmers—and how they are adapting.

Robert McMahon, in his faded denim jeans and straw hat, edged to the roof in a boom lift, three cows shuffling and chickens cawing underfoot. Once he reached the top, he gazed through the logs — a hole so big it was as if God could look through.

Earlier that day, he had gone to Home Depot with his crew: Shelly, his wife of 42 years, and Caleb Johnson, a longtime friend. He and Johnson loaded up two-by-fours to rebuild the roof that sheltered animals at Southern Fresh Farms, a non-profit educational farm in Fort Myers. Shelly remained in their Dodge Ram pickup and turned down Fox News to answer concerned calls.

She texted a friend coping with the destruction from Hurricane Ian that pounded the West coast of Florida at the end of September. The storm had subsumed her friend’s home in floodwaters. Still, he had made the time to check in on the farm. Shelly responded with several hearts, and her blue eyes glistened like morning dew. As messages asking to donate surged, so did her tears.

Back at their farm, Robert leaned over the cherry picker bucket lift, hammering each timber one slab at a time. A-rat-a-tat-tat, an echo of the woodpeckers on the oaks surrounding them. Johnson and Jake Stevens, another friend of the McMahons since his childhood, stood nearby, the two swapping turns directing the crane and clamping down the wood. Manure encircled them, musky, but they didn’t seem to mind. The pair joked that they were dating. Stevens had come by with a pack of ale the night before, and “not many people show up with a cold beer for no reason,” Johnson said.  Johnson’s wife, Michelle, swept away glass shards by the farm’s central market, where visitors sit on wooden benches and buy harvested crops. The three of them, in cream cowboy hats, guffawed like father and sons.

Hurricane Ian trampled over 5 million acres of agricultural land in Florida. The storm ranks among the top storms in U.S. history. For small, family farmers, the recovery is a long season, a brutal winter, fruitless. They face flooding, scattered debris and long-term crop losses. Sea water deposited salt in some soils, parching the plants, making them impossible to nurture back to life. 

Southwest Florida’s barrier islands are familiar with the walloping winds and waters. In 1926, a hurricane choked Sanibel Island farmland. Farmers gave up seeding fruits and vegetables like tomatoes on the island.

The loss is also palpable for fruit orchards, especially the state’s citrus industry, which leads the nation in growing oranges for juice. Hurricane Ian uprooted the trees, and with them, years of growth. Once oranges tumble to the soil, they cannot be sold.

The McMahons, 15 miles from the beach, were far enough from the bay that salt didn’t inundate their five acres. Robert and Shelly moved onto the land in 1980, the year they married. In 2014, they stacked rows of pots in vertical towers, tall as longleaf pine saplings. Lettuce, tomatoes, peppers and green beans sprouted from those towers, with some, like hops and watermelon, embedded in the earth. A spaghetti tube wove through the lined containers, irrigating them with compost. The McMahons scattered seeds of education in the soil, welcoming students to learn agriculture. They became an agritourism park and offered paper cups of chopped carrots and kibble to feed the livestock and fish. The livestock shuffled in the grass, the chickens squabbled. The hens were too old to lay eggs, but they cracked up the guests.

In that first weekend after the storm, Robert prioritized the roof over replanting. He did so to shelter the animals from rain. The goats, donkeys, sheep, chickens and cows braved the Category 4 hurricane, except Henry, a bulking mass of 2,200 pounds. His hoof, matted by mud, had cracked under his weight and the sloshing waves. He was on medication from Blue Pearl, the only pet hospital that was open in the storm’s aftermath. Shelly and Robert had bought him when he was only an hour old, 30 pounds. They saved him from the butcher block and coddled him with Gatorade and milk replacement, after he left his mother. He had laid his spotted head on Shelly’s shoulder, dwarfing her. He snoozed in her lap. Now, the steer’s eyelids hung heavy, as though to conceal the fractured farm. 

The five acres, once orange with marigolds and sunflowers beaming up at the sun — gone. The McMahons had planted the flowers just days before Ian. But the storm drowned them in its current. Perhaps the marigolds, called flor del muerto in Latin culture, foretold the death to come. 

Hurricane Ian’s arrival

As the swirling winds approached at 8 a.m. on Sept. 28, Robert and Shelly huddled at home with their daughter and son-in-law and their two children, aged 13 and nine. Forecasters had predicted the storm would hit Tampa Bay, so the McMahons didn’t bother to shutter the windows. They didn’t do too much to prepare. They left the farm in Mother Nature’s palms. 

But then the storm swerved south. And Mother Nature didn’t spare them.  

Robert looked out the windows and saw the roof insulation trickle down, like fluttering snow. The wind rustled, tousling all the crop towers, round and round. The children played games on their iPads and sat idly by.

They lost power at 11 a.m. Still, Robert assured everyone everything would be all right. As the grandfather, he felt the paternal tug to protect. “We’ll get through this,” he told his family. But deep inside he worried: what the hell is going to happen?

Robert thought the roof might upend as the wind roared, louder than a groaning tractor. He told everyone to grab their shoes and a flashlight. 

“Why?” Blake, his grandson, asked him. 

“Just put your shoes on. Let’s be ready,” Robert said. 

He clenched his boots and the kids their tennis shoes. No thoughts of other possessions flashed in his mind, only getting his family to safety.

Hours went by. Time wavered, flickering unsteadily. Robert felt helpless as time passed, only able to watch as the roofs atop the market and animal shelter blew away.   

Finally, at 2:30 a.m. the hurricane bands receded. 

At first light, the family walked outside. Shelly wept. The hurricane had wiped away everything they had built. Within hours, their livelihood – lost. The hydroponic crops, the lettuce a week away from harvest, smothered and withered. The Seminole pumpkins, which had crept up a wire trellis, hung brown and shriveled. The golden sunflowers, once on fire under the sun, submerged and floated away. 

We’re screwed, Shelly thought. 

She figured the farm and upcoming seventh-annual Fall Festival were over. She had no idea how they would survive.

They spent four days in darkness without power. Shelly had collected oil lamps for years, one of the many memorabilia and handmade creations stashed in the home. Now, they had utility. She lit them in the darkness, cradling the orbs aglow.

Over the next week, her fears were extinguished. Dozens of folks from neighboring areas arrived, some bearing only the clothes on their backs. They had lost everything themselves, but they had come to help the McMahons rebuild. The farm meant so much to them over the years, especially during the pandemic. An alcove, a nature trove brimming with vegetables, chirping birds and mangoes. Those gleaming sunflowers blazed in their memories. 

Changing climate

Robert remembers when the surrounding tony neighborhoods, like Paseo, were sleepy areas. His father first bought the land in 1978. Daniels Road, now six-lane Daniels Parkway, was still one-lane and dirt. Their mailbox was in town. At the time, the farm had some cows and a couple of horses. 

Robert McMahon Sr. farmed most of his life, tending to mums and gladiolus with his wife, Lillian, in Iona decades before. They were truck farmers, taking the crops to the packing house, and didn’t live on the land. Across the river near Paseo, the family later leased the land and grew red potatoes. Their farm was on the upland; no wetlands drained. With the sprawling housing developments built since, hurricane floods clog the homes, Robert said, rather than sloshing through.

“Do I go along with the climate change thing? I don't know. I'm not that guy,” Robert said, as he dragged a hoe across the soil, digging up weeds. “All’s I can tell you is what I've seen in my 63 years of being here, and what I see is development, what I see is concrete, what I see is asphalt, what I see is roofs. And to me if you want to blame something that's the thing to blame.”

Gravel slabs, spread by human machines, harbor heat. And he’s felt the blaze of hotter days on his nape since his childhood, even since the ‘90s.

David Zierden, state climatologist, said that the number of hurricanes has not changed, as many climate change deniers point out. The intensity has. The heating atmosphere, increased sea surface temperatures and sea level exacerbate the storms. 

“The rising global sea level is getting close to about a foot now in the last 100 years,” he said. “So now you're adding a foot more to the potential storm surge.”

Rapid intensification, as seen with Ian, has also risen, Zierden said.

“We can't say that Hurricane Ian would not have happened without climate change, but we could certainly see the fingerprints,” he said.

The climate, of course, is not the only thing changing for Florida's farmers. Brad Hawkins, a fellow farmer who Robert said will one day run Southern Fresh Farms, comes from a multi-generation farm family. His father helped Robert back when he grew solely red potatoes. Hawkins searches for answers on Google, such as solutions for ravaging rabbits. As a kid in the ‘60s, Robert gathered with farmers at a Southern restaurant on weekends at 5:30 a.m., where they sat at a big table, ate breakfast and shared what they knew. Lee County is not the same, Robert said. Everyone knew a farmer back then, with six to seven million farms in the U.S. from 1910 to 1940. Now, there are about two million

Robert and Shelly have felt the farming struggles in their relationship, each ding to their livelihood. They met in high school, Shelly at Cypress Lake and Robert at Riverdale, when Robert hosted a toga party. Shelly arrived in sheets and immediately knew that she wanted to speak with him when she saw him at the door. From there out, he became her partner, her protector. She laughed with Johnson’s wife, Michelle, saying she only got drunk a handful of times and never smoked. She had no need. She was content with life with Robert on the farm. She grew up, after all, going to her grandparents’ Illinois farm and was accustomed to dirt under nails. 

The McMahons are the kind of family who wake up with the sun each day and sometimes crave chicken gizzards from a gas station. They call themselves rednecks proudly. They are entwined with their land, as sure as the mycelia woven below. They certainly were not the kind to be stopped by a hurricane.

Hacking losses and sowing seeds – recovery

A wooden gazebo, once washed up from the swirls of Hurricane Charley, still stands. Robert found it toppled over on Sanibel Island while cleaning up from that 2004 tempest. The arches have overseen weddings and birthday parties. And it survived Hurricane Ian.

But their pond and a mango tree did not. After a couple years of growth, it had finally begun bearing fruit. 

The first steps were to scrap the losses and hack the fallen trees like the mango, just as farmers once took to the woods with a trusty backhoe. Clearing and cleansing the land prepares it for new plantings.

The first weekend after the hurricane, Robert and Shelly debated a Facebook post asking for volunteers to help. They decided against it, not wanting hundreds to show up. Already in a GoFundMe campaign, they had raised $21,050 by the first week of October. That’s how beloved they were in their community.

Shelly and her daughter Amy swept debris in the marketplace. They wore rubber boots, chicken proof for when the birds pecked at their feet. They knew rain could return. But they hoped that it wouldn’t and drown the delicate seedlings.

Michelle rode a golf cart over to the animals and huffed along, carrying a hefty bag of “sweet feed,” as good as any Southern tea. She dumped the protein-rich grains into bowls like she would for any beloved pet.

“This is what we do,” Robert said, and he opened the gate. One bullock, Bob, shoved him with his head in greeting. Bob then mulled over his bowl, and food scattered everywhere, his black hide, dark as subversive sheep fleece. He’s “full of piss and vinegar,” Robert said.

Robert worked on the roof the rest of the day, cracking jokes and smiling, while Shelly struggled not to cry. Her gratitude shone around her like the glow of her oil lamps in her home. 

By the end of the day, the McMahons felt good about the progress they had made. The animal roof offered ample shade, the market floor was almost safe to hobble barefoot on. So the next morning, they departed the farm to chip in elsewhere.

They helped neighbors lug furniture, tarnished by mold to the street corner. They had already been collecting clothing donations and taking them to the beach and the churches nearby. 

The next day on the farm, a handful of volunteers arrived. They devoted themselves to the battered plants. The hydroponic crops, with four pots per tower, were skewed to the side or uprooted. Water could not flow through. Two men, one an elementary school teacher in Sperry water shoes, another with his hair tied back in a bun, lifted them. The two stood on chairs, hammering the poles deeper into the soil. Sweat dribbled down their faces in Florida’s warm fall air. 

Robert bought everyone Wendy’s burgers for lunch. They also snacked on “monkey meat,” a scramble of Bologna and mayonnaise spread on white bread. Shelly said she and the kids grew up on the sandwiches. She intended to continue the tradition.

The Fall Festival was just a week away. Even though they had come a long way, they had nothing to sell in the market. But they had an idea. They decided to purchase fruits and vegetables at the local market and ship pumpkins from North Carolina too. They were determined to hold the festival, even though their farm was laid bare.

The day before, Shelly raised the American flag in a ritual, her head tilted in awe toward the star-crested banner, as though gazing at the constellations themselves. “We’re raising the flag baby,” her best friend, Diane Stevens, with similar short stature, said. Shelly yanked the metal wire and the flag up, up, up. Stevens sang “God Bless America,” the chorus ringing alongside the rustling of the flag. When it reached the top, waving in the wind, Shelly raised her arms triumphantly, her face splayed in a wide smile. 

But by night time, stress furrowed Shelly’s brow. She hadn't known this day would come; she didn't think it would. 

“What else do we have to do?” she shouted at Amy. 

“I don't know,” Amy retorted. 

They ran back and forth. “I feel like we are not even close to being ready for tomorrow,” Shelly said.

“We always feel like that,” Amy said in a reassuring tone. 

 Robert eased them both: “what we get done, we get done.”

The Fall Festival

By 8 a.m., food trucks piled in, dozens of people they had known for years. Stuffed animal making stations, apple butter and jelly merchants, friends who wanted to make a couple extra bucks frying doughnuts. Shelly and Robert allowed anyone in. They especially wanted those who had lost a lot from the hurricane to make some sales. Admission was free for everyone, as always.

The kettle corn aroma, nutty and dusted with caramelized sugar, wafted about. Children squealed, swinging in the playground. Scorched sizzles of steak arose from the grill. Robert flipped burger patties as deftly as he drops seeds.

“They’ve been here before,” Shelly said, pointing at a family donned in rubber boots, their feet sinking in and sticking to the soggy soil saturated from rain. ‘Course Shelly knew almost everyone, and dished out “honey” and “sweetie,” as often as she sold cups of carrots to families. She set aside a dozen eggs for a past petsitter. She whispered to Teresa Guilday, Robert’s sister and fellow cashier, about a woman who taught kindergarten. She remembered a little girl who once drew her a Minnie Mouse picture when she was in diapers. Shelly still keeps the picture, as she does with most sentimental items. The table was stacked with mementos, including a cloth pumpkin her mother sewed and a photo of her and Robert, when her silver locks were ginger and voluminous in true ‘80s fashion.

Each time someone came by that table, they exchanged hurricane stories. 

“I was a puddle here 17 days ago,” Shelly told one passerby.

Frans Kox, who owned a flower store on Sanibel Island, told her about the wreckage he faced: 17 feet of water assailing his home, only a few inches from their front door. He told her his street looked like a river, water churning through. Every bloom drowned. 

Shelly told him that she and Robert lost 90 percent of their crops.

“I cry every day at what we accomplished and all the people who came to help,” she said to Kox. 

True to word and form, Shelly’s eyes welled with each embrace and conversation, her puffy cheeks flushing to a deep, tomato blush. “Stop it,” Guilday told her, lightly slapping her on the arm. “They’re happy tears,” Shelly responded. 

The festival, envisioned as a weekend affair, stretched for three weeks. The winter season quickly approached. The productive Christmas season was in the seeds tucked in the cooler, in the Balsam trees and pine scent — a cold winter’s night, the rustling of their wreaths and dangling lights. Shelly would cook five made-from-scratch meals again for the community with Santa Claus visits throughout December. 

Robert and Shelly had planted sunflowers the week before the festival with hopes of seeing their barren field blossom once more. Palms to earth with their community, hope budded in their souls. And in the fields where they planted the flowers, little tendrils circled the soil, teeming beneath.

Katie is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.