Without citrus rescue, Florida officials say industry will wither
WASHINGTON — Florida lawmakers are warning that Americans better get used to drinking orange juice from Brazil if they can't secure the federal help to rescue the state's billion-dollar citrus industry ravaged by Hurricane Irma.
The September storm that pummeled the Sunshine State flooded groves and uprooted trees, many of them only weeks from harvest. An estimated 421,176 acres of citrus production were affected by hurricane or tropical storm force winds in a state that provides 60% of the nation's orange juice supply.
The 31 million boxes of oranges Florida groves produced during the season ending Sept. 30 was the lowest since 1942, according to a Bloomberg News report.
Florida lawmakers are getting behind a proposal to add $2.5 billion in agriculture relief for the state to a $36.5 billion emergency disaster bill the House is expected to vote on later this week. Nearly $761 million of that request would be direct aid for the state's citrus industry to cover losses incurred from Irma.
Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fl., whose district includes some of the state's largest orange groves, urged his colleagues at a Florida delegation meeting Wednesday to make the case for aid personally to House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
"Go tell him how important it is that we not import orange juice from Brazil, that it's important that Florida continue to lead in the production of orange juice," he told colleagues. "This storm was devastating to our industry. Just ask the people that are involved in orange juice every day what the lack of help will mean to their industry in your state. It's catastrophic."
Before Irma's broadside, the industry had been struggling to recover from citrus greening, the disease that has helped cut Florida citrus production by more than 60 percent over the past decade. Growers had just begun to make progress in spite of the disease, but now they must rebound from a storm so powerful that some groves reported every orange ripped from their trees, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture.
Aside from assisting the citrus industry, the $2.5 billion request includes money to cover losses in the state's other agricultural sectors such as greenhouse, nursery, and floriculture ($625 million), sugar ($383 million), beef cattle ($237 million), and fruits and vegetables excluding citrus ($180 million), based on an assessment by the state Agriculture Department.
Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam, who traveled with Gov. Rick Scott to address the congressional delegation, said the $2.5 billion loss estimate is a preliminary number that's expected to rise.
“You can stand in any orange grove in Florida right now and listen to the fruit hitting the ground like rainfall because of the longer-term damage that continues to play out," Putnam told the lawmakers. "You can walk through any grove in Florida and smell the rot of fruit that was just weeks away from being harvested and for the first time in years may have been a larger crop than the year before."
The request for aid has also been made by Florida's two senators — Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Marco Rubio — in a letter they sent to congressional leaders last week.
Rooney, who sits on the Appropriations committee, said he's talked to congressional leaders about including the funding in the disaster aid funding bill working its way through the House but received no guarantees.
The proposal does not come with a list of suggested cuts to other programs that would help cover the increased price tag of disaster aid. Without such "offsets," some fiscally conservative lawmakers may oppose the plan because it would add to the deficit.
But Rooney said time is of the essence.
"We're talking about an industry collapse in Florida," he said in an interview after the delegation meeting. The money would keep citrus farmers in business "so they don't throw their hands up and go do something else and keep the people employed, replanting trees, things like that."