Congress closer to providing aid for citrus growers
WASHINGTON — Florida’s citrus growers can nearly taste the orange aid for which they’ve been thirsting.
The latest $81 billion disaster relief bill House leaders have crafted would include $2.6 billion for hurricane-related agriculture relief.
It's the third — and largest — funding request for the widespread damage inflicted since August on the Gulf Coast and the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S Virgin Islands by hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.
The measure needs approval by both houses of Congress and lawmakers Tuesday were still working to include it in a catch-all spending bill Congress is expected to approve before members leave at the end of this week for their holiday recess,
But Sunshine State lawmakers are optimistic that Washington finally will deliver on its promise to help cover the $761 million in hurricane damage that Florida’s nationally iconic and economically substantial citrus industry suffered at the winds and rains of Irma.
If the bill passes "our growers can finally go get the help that they need to get them at least to next year," said Rep. Tom Rooney whose southern Florida district suffered massive citrus damage from Irma. "Before yesterday, they were getting nothing."
If the House passes disaster relief, it moves on to the Senate where Florida's two senators — Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Marco Rubio — are pushing for citrus relief.
Two previous rounds of disaster aid did not include any money for Florida's citrus crop , which was decimated by flooding and wind damage from Hurricane Irma in September.
More than 421,000 acres of citrus groves across a state that produces about 70% of the nation's orange juice was destroyed. U.S. Department of Agriculture forecasters are predicting the 2017-18 crop will be the lowest in decades.
Last month, the Trump administration proposed a third round of $44 billion in aid with no promise of citrus aide and only $1 billion for agriculture overall. But Florida and Texas lawmakers have been pressuring congressional leaders for more help for farmers and ranchers.
When the bill was unveiled Monday night by House appropriators, it had grown to $81 billion and included $2.6 billion for agriculture that could be used to help Florida's citrus industry.
The announcement was cheered by Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, whose office has estimated total hurricane-related losses to Florida's agriculture, including beef, dairy and aquaculture, at $2.5 billion.
“Florida's farmers, ranchers and growers suffered unprecedented damage from Hurricane Irma, and today's announcement of proposed emergency funding for Florida agriculture is the first bit of good news we've heard in months," he said in a news release.
Rooney said one of the stumbling blocks was trying to convince lawmakers in other parts of the country to rescue citrus farmers, many of whom did not buy crop insurance. He said those colleagues didn't understand that insurance for citrus was relatively meager, often covering no more than a quarter of losses, compared to other crops.
So as part of the bill, citrus growers who apply for federal disaster aid must purchase at least two years of crop insurance, he said. In addition, lawmakers are committed to improving the program so farmers whose orange and grapefruit groves suffer damage from a future catastrophe get more back in return.