DADE CITY — As the sun rose on the Tuesday after Hurricane Irma, Leonard Park made the familiar drive toward Frogmore Fresh blueberry farm.
With remnant winds still blowing, he hoped for the best. But as he turned the corner and looked across the field, he could see row after row of fallen and leaning plants.
"Plants were leaning, craning or laid down on the ground," said Park, the farm's general manager. "I felt discouraged, but I said, 'This is Mother Nature.' "
Frogmore Fresh Farm, off Saint Joe Road west of Dade City wasn't the only local farm damaged during Irma, according to Whitney Elmore, the Pasco County extension director for the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. But nowhere did she see crop damage like that at Frogmore.
Park estimates more than 100,000 plants were damaged, a loss he says could cost the farm anywhere from 15 percent to 20 percent of its harvest next spring, which stretches from mid March to mid May.
But with the help of volunteers, and quick action on the farm's part, a good chunk of the damaged plants on the 150-acre farm have already been stabilized and replanted. And despite Irma's winds, which affecting almost half of the farm's plants, Park estimated that only a couple thousand plants have died so far.
The farm is still trying to figure out how it will recover some the costs from the storm's damage. Park said the rules the farm has to work with are tough, but that one option would be to take a multi-year capitalized expense for the plants that died.
The day after the hurricane, Elmore said, she called farms and UF partners to assess the extent of the damage. Like other farms in the area, Frogmore Fresh sets aside land for UF students to do research trials on blueberry plants. It also offers internships to students. Because of that, one of Elmore's first calls was to Park.
"I heard it in his voice," she said. "That's when I knew the damage was bad. But it took me a second to process that 100,000 plants were damaged."
Elmore decided to mobilize volunteers to help replant and stabilize the blueberry plants. From about 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sept. 16, about 250 volunteers from UF, Saint Leo University, 4H and the surrounding area canvassed about 23 acres of the farm, focusing mainly on the younger plants.
Elmore said the group helped stabilize roughly 20,000 plants that day.
"I can tell you the great majority of what we stabilized is alive," she said. "(Park) is still babying the plants that suffered, but we did the right thing by acting quick."
Still, a month after the hurricane, there is still work being done. Park, with the help of others — some days it's 30 people, other days 40 or 50 — is still assessing plants for damage. Some have been uprooted and require replanting. Others are leaning and require a stake for support.
Some of the plants require a close examination to see the problem.
"This plant has broken its roots," Park said while rocking a plant back and forth. "That's not good."
Along with selling blueberries and its partnership with UF, Frogmore has other roots in the community.
The farm works in conjunction with Feeding Tampa Bay, a nonprofit organization that provides food to people in 10 counties in west-central Florida. The farm and the organization started a volunteer program that launched last April. Feeding Tampa Bay says that for each pail of blueberries picked, it is able to provide 45 meals to people who need them. The farm makes a donation based on the amount of blueberries picked.
This past April was the first time volunteers were able to pick blueberries.
Jayci Peters, the director of marketing and communications for Feeding Tampa Bay, said the partnership is a "win-win."
"The partnership is not only a way to connect with a local farm, but it also helps shape a conversation about why fresh food is important for the people we serve," Peters said.
Given all the work that's already been done to protect the plants, Park expects the farm will be able to participate in the program next year.
"We feel tired from the whole ordeal," he said, "but the light at the end of tunnel is definitely there."