Citrus industry looks for aid after Irma

- A long wait may be ahead for broad federal relief for Florida's beleaguered citrus industry, “decimated” last week by a lethal hurricane that crossed the peninsula at the start of the growing season, state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said Wednesday.

Putnam, a Bartow Republican running for governor, advised Florida Citrus Commission members that the agriculture industry --- the state's second-largest industry after tourism --- could be at the mercy of Congress to land broader federal assistance for crops ravaged by Hurricane Irma.

“Comparable disaster assistance programs, to what we've seen in the past, will now require an act of Congress,” Putnam, a former member of the U.S. House, said. “And as a recovering congressman, I can assure you that nothing moves as fast as we'd like in Washington.”

Putnam, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and U.S. Rep. Thomas Rooney took an aerial tour Monday of a number of groves in Southwest Florida.

Perdue, a former Georgia governor, tweeted Monday, “Staggering crop loss from #Irma will test resilience of growers.”

Insurance is expected to help many citrus growers cover crop losses, and federal rural-development loan programs are available. Perdue said in a separate tweet that he will ask Congress for additional aid.

However, Putnam said Perdue's office doesn't have the flexibility it once had.

When Florida was hit by a series of hurricanes in 2004, the U.S. Department of Agriculture created a $500 million Florida Hurricane Disaster Assistance program. The money covered storm damages and income losses for growers.

“Timing will be key,” Putnam said. “We're going to have to devise a new strategy that will allow growers to get the help they need, as quickly as possible, to be able to rebuild. And we need total industry unity to accomplish this, throughout the citrus industry and our other commodities, to really get done what we need to get done.”

Citrus Commission Chairman G. Ellis Hunt, president of citrus groves and packing houses in Lake Wales, said “jobs are in limbo” for an industry that employees about 45,000 people and that the need for federal assistance is “very significant.”

“We had people from the packing house calling in (Tuesday) wanting to know when we are going to start. We don't have a date and can't tell them,” Hunt said. “There's a lot of questions out there behind each of these growers, but the employees are really questioning what will happen to their lives.”

While meeting with reporters and farmers in Lake Wales last week, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson --- while jointly touring areas impacted by the storm with Rubio --- said Congress may not consider disaster relief money for Florida until it is forced to act on the federal budget in December.

A similar vote providing $15.3 billion to victims of Hurricane Harvey was approved this month over the objections of a number of conservative Republicans as the vote also raised the federal debt ceiling and extended government funding into December.

A clearer outlook on the storm's impact is expected when the first forecast for the citrus growing season is made Oct. 12 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Florida's citrus industry, which has faced years of reduced acreage and a deadly citrus greening disease, was already at a five decades-low yield when the most-recent growing season ended in July.

A decade ago, Florida accounted for almost three-fourths of all U.S. orange production. California was second at 25.7 percent. Florida now accounts for 58 percent of U.S. orange production. California remains second, but at 40.65 percent of the federal total.

Estimates of Hurricane Irma's impacts range from 40 percent to 100 percent losses for growers, though an overall figure is not available.

Nevertheless, Putnam said the industry will survive as it has past freezes, storms and other disasters.

“This is a resilient industry,” Putnam said “We've been through this. We'll get through this.”

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