Still time for Senate to save Florida citrus
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The citrus industry is an essential part of the fabric that makes Florida, Florida. Just look around. The background of the state license plate, oranges. The state flower is the Orange Blossom. The state drink is Florida orange juice. In Florida, citrus is a generation-spanning family business, older than the state itself. Simply put, citrus isn’t just a crop. It’s a way of life. Our way of life. It always has been. Preserving that way of life for generations to come has become an important crusade of mine in Congress, not least of which because my district is the number one producer and seller of citrus in the country. 

For the past decade Florida’s citrus growers have been on the ropes battling a disease that causes their trees to produce yellowing leaves and small fruit. Citrus greening disease or Huanglongbing (HLB) impairs the tree’s ability to take in nourishment, ultimately resulting in fewer and smaller fruit over time. Once a tree is infected, there is no cure. Greening has now spread to virtually every grove in the state and has decreased crop production dramatically. In the 2003-2004 season, Florida produced 242 million boxes of oranges. The 2016-2017 season yielded just 68.7 million boxes.

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Over this past year, state and federal funding for greening research coupled with growers’ own investments in HLB therapies began to show promise. Growers’ trees were looking healthier, there was less fruit on the ground, and many long-time growers were projecting a rebound. It finally looked like they had turned a corner. 

That all changed on Sept. 10 when Hurricane Irma made landfall in Florida.

While the mainstream media was covering the storm in areas like Miami and Tampa, Hurricane Irma was routing Florida’s heartland. The storm caused major losses to virtually every sector of our diverse agriculture industry, which is the second leading driver of Florida’s economy. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services estimates that crop losses and farm damages will be more than $2.5 billion. The citrus industry alone will suffer over $760 million in losses. 

This storm is a potential deathblow to the Florida citrus industry.

However, all hope is not lost. The federal government can provide Florida’s agriculture industry the lifeline it needs to survive this storm. After the highly-destructive 2004 hurricane season, the U.S. Department of Agriculture set a precedent for providing post-disaster relief to citrus producers through the Florida Hurricane Agricultural Disaster Assistance program. If USDA can replicate aspects of this program, particularly for the citrus industry, we may have a chance to right the ship. If we don’t, Florida orange juice as we know it could cease to exist. 

Unfortunately, our calls for help over the past month were met with the kind of bureaucratic runaround that only Washington can deliver. 

If the administration was a bureaucratic nightmare, Congress proved to be even worse. We were repeatedly assured that Florida’s needs would be taken care of, but that it might be “too late” to help us this go around. Despite the concerted efforts of our governor, our agriculture commissioner, and our delegation affirming that we literally cannot afford to wait, congressional leadership told us the train was leaving the station and we would have to catch the next one.

Somehow, nearly a month after the hurricane made landfall, there still wasn't enough time. Our delegation and growers themselves laid out the consequences of doing nothing – utter devastation to a major economic driver in the third largest state in the nation. It seems that even with our state’s leaders unified behind our agriculture industry – the bureaucracy, congressional leadership, and a fear of crossing the White House got in the way of administering help to Florida’s iconic citrus growers.

I know these men and women. They will not give up and I will continue to fight on their behalf. Unfortunately, I don’t know how many will be able to hold on while congressional leadership and the administration drag their feet. One thing must be made clear: if the federal government does not do something immediately, I am afraid this crop, this way of life, this state treasure, could become a thing of the past. We must not let that happen.

Rooney represents Florida's 17th District.