Most people probably know about the struggles faced by residents and businesspeople in Lee County and the rest of Fort Myers in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian.
But you might not know that farms dot the seaside landscape of Pine Island, off the Fort Myers mainland. It’s an agrarian oasis, where mangoes, palms and other tropical plants grow.
UF/IFAS Extension agents and scientists are helping Pine Island’s small farmers as they struggle to piece together their lives and livelihoods since Hurricane Ian sideswiped the island on Sept. 28. Two agents, Lindsey Wiggins and Stephen Brown are providing significant science-based support to producers on the Island.
Before the storm hit, Wiggins, a livestock agent whose counties include Lee, Hendry, Glades, Charlotte and Collier, contacted Lee Keener, who owns Gatherings Grove. At his small operation, Keener grows mangoes and keeps sheep.
As it happened, about a month before the storm hit, Wiggins had visited Keener at his farm for an assessment. Wiggins pointed out toxic weeds that needed to be removed so the sheep would not eat them.
“Just like the rest of us, watching from the mainland, my heart hurt for the folks impacted by Hurricane Ian,” Wiggins said. “I was particularly worried about the ranchers and farmers on Pine Island that I have grown to know through our interactions at Extension programs and on-farm consultations.”
“I called a few of them starting Thursday morning, right after the storm,” she said. “Cell service was non-existent in my home county, Glades County, as well as on Pine Island. It was Friday before I could reach a cattle rancher on the island, who made it clear just how much damage they suffered. Unfortunately, livestock were running loose as the storm surge just pushed fences right out of the ground, feed and ranch supply stores were temporarily closed due to power outages and loss of water supply, and the standing water left very little forage for the livestock to graze.”
“She (Wiggins) called us the day after the storm to check on us, and Lindsey helped us develop a plan in case we needed to evacuate our livestock off of the island,” Keener said.
Talking to Keener by phone was necessary because Wiggins couldn’t actually go to their farm because the bridge to Pine Island was wiped out by the storm for about a week. Once a temporary bridge was built, and the first day the bridge was open, Wiggins brought Keener feed and hay for his livestock from the Florida Cattlemen’s Foundation.
“Fortunately, the Florida Cattlemen’s Foundation had a disaster relief ‘Point of Distribution’ at the Arcadia Stockyard with hay, feed, fencing materials, water, MREs and fuel,” Wiggins said. “Florida Cattlemen’s Association (FCA) members and UF/IFAS livestock Extension agents helped distribute these supplies to producers in need; including those on Pine Island.”
Wiggins is just one of many Extension agents and UF/IFAS scientists helping residents on Pine Island and the rest of Lee County.
Brown, the commercial horticulture agent for UF/IFAS Extension Lee County, took samples of palm trees from Keener’s farm and from Jason Cole at Gopal Nursery. He sent two slices of palm to Braham Dhillon, a plant pathologist at the UF/IFAS Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center, where Dhillon tests the palms for diseases.
Dhillon didn’t just stay in his lab, he trekked to Fort Myers to survey the damaged palm trees himself. He, his lab technician Seemanti Chakrabarty, a Master Gardener Volunteer and Brown collected many palm samples from McGregor Boulevard and its side streets in Fort Myers.
They will sample fallen royal palms to determine if any underlying palm disease contributed to their toppling.
“This will be helpful for those growing palms and those in the landscape industry,” Brown said. “It should help us predict which palms are most vulnerable to high winds -- from a disease perspective -- not just hurricanes.
Brown continues to help growers with health of palms including insects, disease and nutritional problems.
“I am surveying damaged palms to assess the effects of the storm and perhaps provide future information on how to best protect palms before a hurricane,” he said.
Brown spent time with Mica McMillan, a UF/IFAS assistant professor of palm horticulture – also at the Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center -- helping her survey damage done to a wide variety of landscape palms.
“My hope is to rank them in order of hurricane resistance and survivability and the manner in which they succumb, if that is the case,” Brown said. This should assist nursery growers, landscapers, homeowners, landscape designers and architects -- and add to the Florida Friendly Landscaping™ database.