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Alachua County Farms Recover Months After Hurricane Irma

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Beyond Gainesville’s city limits lies an equine sanctuary, a U-pick fruit farm, a field-grown shade tree farm, a dairy farm and a produce farm.

The owners of these five farms say they suffered losses — mainly crops — from flooding and wind related to Hurricane Irma.

But now, more than two months after Irma struck the area around Sept. 11, the five say they’ve almost fully recovered.

Though these farms did not apply for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) aid after Irma hit, Alachua County was one of the 37 counties in the state to qualify for it.

Throughout the county, there have been 21,824 registrations for FEMA funding, Gerard Hammink, FEMA media relations specialist, wrote in an email. FEMA assistance is divided into two part: housing assistance and other needs assistance.

In Alachua, $4,167,063.57 has been given to housing, and $2,481,682.96 has been given to other needs. The deadline to register for funding was Nov. 24, Hammink wrote.

Along with growing countless plants, Swallowtail Farm is also home to multiple animals, such as cows, chickens, sheep and occasionally pigs. (Christy Piña/WUFT News)

The University of Florida Dairy research facility in Alachua, home to 500 milking cows, had severe crop, wind and water damage, said Todd Pritchard, manager of the dairy unit. In total, it received 18 inches of rain.

The damage to the crops that the facility uses to feed their cows “was pretty bad,” Pritchard said. “Excess water and the wind damage pretty much ruined our crops.”

Because of the time of year, the farm hasn’t been able to replant the crops because such planting would be out of season.

“The quality of the crop and the yield of the crop is nowhere where it should’ve been based on the weather condition,” he said.

Pritchard said that, based on the weather, there should be more fruitful crops, but the hurricane set the crop growth back.

Other Alachua County farms were more fortunate.

Mill Creek Farm, which provides a home for retired horses in northwest Alachua, has already recovered.

“We had a lot of flooding. We had a lot of trees down, a lot of washouts,” said Paul Gregory, the current manager and owner of Mill Creek Farm. “But we’ve got everything back in order now.”

Along with those issues, Gregory said four horses that were dumped during the hurricane were sent to Mill Creek Farm from the SPCA in Miami.

A few miles north of the Retirement Home for Horses stands Deep Spring Farm, an organic, U-Pick farm.

Michael and Leela Robinson established Deep Spring Farm in 2014.

“We are an organic, U-Pick fruit farm that encourages people to visit for agriculture as well as the ecology, the nature of the farm, the natural setting,” Leela Robinson said.

The Robinsons put in a lot of intense preparation before Hurricane Irma hit, so their farm didn’t sustain major damage, though they did have to go through a severe clean-up process.

“It’s tough,” Robinson said. “It’s challenging when so many of us are kind of living on the edge already, that something like a hurricane like that is a major setback. A lot of people are feeling that.”

Farmers at Swallowtail Farm, a farm northwest of Gainesville, grow two to three hundred different varieties of plants in one season, said Noah Shitama, the founder of the farm. (Christy Piña/WUFT News)

In the spring of 2009, Emory University graduate Noah Shitama founded Swallowtail Farm in hopes of becoming a model of authentic sustainability, a place of deep learning and a reflection of the community around it.

“Part of what we’re doing too is kind of trying to educate people of what it means to eat locally and seasonally, because it’s a completely different way of cooking when it comes down to it, to be working with what is available as opposed to going and finding your ingredients,” Shitama said.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, Swallowtail had no power for five days and struggled to care for their seedlings. Shitama said he was afraid at one point because they were running out of the water they were using to water seedlings. Shitama said they removed the seedlings from the greenhouse before the power went out.

Since the hurricane hit towards the beginning of their season, Swallowtail wasn’t drastically affected, but it did slow down it’s planting.

“It definitely kind of threw a wrench in things, but it didn’t really disrupt our business or destroy the fields too badly,” he said.

In Alachua, Southeastern Tree Farm, home to 35,000 live oaks, magnolias, elms, hollies and other trees, is considering itself lucky, said David Lerner, the farm’s vice president.

The hurricane caused a few thousand trees to lean, which Lerner said is fixable, but fewer than 20 actually broke in half.

Lerner said that a lot of the trees had been trimmed by horticultural scientists from UF. Lerner said that process made them more hurricane-resistant. Those were done in the summer, but others weren’t scheduled to be pruned until the winter.

“The ones that were pruned in that way did very well,” Lerner said. “The trees that were going to be pruned this winter were affected the hardest because they had not been pruned yet.”

Overall, Alachua farms were able to recover relatively quickly after Irma.

“I would say it was a major inconvenience, but we were very thankful that everything was fixable,” Lerner said. “We consider ourselves very lucky and very thankful because it could’ve been much worse.”

About Christy Pina

Christy Piña is a reporter for WUFT. She can be reached at cpina95@ufl.edu or (786) 553-4281. Follow her on Twitter @christypina_.

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