Dislocations caused by Irma expected to affect saw palmetto production

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

Photo courtesy of Valensa International
Photo courtesy of Valensa International
Hurricane Irma will affect saw palmetto berry production, both because of damage to the crop itself and the dislocations caused by damage to infrastructure.

After caused significant damage in Cuba and elsewhere in the eastern Caribbean, Irma made landfall on Sept. 10 in the United States in the Florida Keys as Category 3 hurricane with winds topping 150 mph. Damage in Key West and other communities on the Keys was extensive.  After traversing Florida Bay the storm made landfall on the Florida mainland proper at the small west coast community of Marco Island, which was also badly damaged.  But as it moved north, the storm tracked more or less up the middle of the peninsula, which severed its connection to warm sea water, the heat from which is the main engine of tropical cyclones, so the storm rapidly weakened.  And that track also forestalled a big storm surge into heavily populated areas on the mainland, which is the main factor in the havoc wreaked by hurricanes. The wind speeds get the press, but the water does the heavy lifting.

Damage to electrical grid proves to be biggest factor

Nevertheless, there was widespread flooding in parts of southern Florida, and the electrical grid was offline in many areas until just recently.  It’s these factors, and their effect on the lives of local workers, that will be the primary impact on saw palmetto production, according to Larry McCarty, vice president of production and supply chain for Valensa International.  Valensa is a leading producer of extracted oil products from saw palmetto, which is studied for its benefits in men's urinary tract health. Valensa supplies a saw palmetto extract branded as USPlus Prostate Formula.

Saw palmetto is a bush-like member of the palm family. Dense thickets of the plant cover much of central and southern Florida.  The berries produced by the plant are for the most part gathered by independent contractors who need somewhere to sell their crop, which has been difficult post Irma.

“From what I can tell, the crop itself has survived across the state.  It has more to do with how the people who are out there picking and harvesting can get back to their livelihood. The driers were out of power until just a couple of days ago, and one of our employees just got power back at 3 AM this morning (Tuesday),”​ McCarty told NutraIngredients-USA.

Yields could be surpressed

Ed Fletcher, director of quality and sustainability at botanical ingredients sourcing firm Herbal Ingenuity, views the crop damage as more extensive than does McCarty.

“We were down in Florida harvesting just last week,”​ Fletcher said.  It just the beginning of the saw palmetto season, which starts first in the south, the areas most affected by Irma, he said.

“Any ripe berries that are blown off the stems and fall to the ground are no longer viable because of microbial contamination and other factors.  A crop that was looking very good now doesn’t look so promising. We will get a late start. When the driers aren’t running, you can’t harvest, because the berries just rot if you don’t start drying them immediately.  I really question if there will be enough berries, and what the quality of them will be,”​ Fletcher said.

Fletcher said shortages have already caused the prices for the berries to rise by more than 20% in just the past few days.  McCarty said he expects those market fluctuations to settle down once the full supply picture becomes clearer.

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