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Editorial: For the future of citrus, we hope Putnam’s right

Gainesville Sun – October 29, 2017

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam believes Congress wants to do the right thing to help the state’s farmers — and particularly its battered citrus growers — in the wake of Hurricane Irma. It will just take longer than most of us preferred or expected.

We hope he’s right.

Because it was so disappointing last week to watch federal lawmakers bundle $36.5 billion in aid for folks in Florida, as well as Texas, Puerto Rico and California, and yet exclude Sunshine State farmers.

Putnam visited The Ledger on Thursday to discuss his bid for the Republican gubernatorial nomination next year. During an extensive interview, he said a pair of factors helped sink money for citrus growers and other Florida agricultural interests.

One was that the aid request came “outside the norm” for such disaster-relief bills. The second was the perception in Washington that including farm relief in the package made it a “Florida bill” — which generated little interest among Texas lawmakers seeking help for Houston.

At issue was a $2.5 billion estimate of the damage, which included about $760 million for citrus growers. Putnam said his office and the University of Florida’s agriculture services division hastily put that together to give Congress a ballpark estimate of the relief cost. Putnam indicated to us that figure now will be fine-tuned as Florida’s congressional delegation and state officials repackage the aid request. A final decision on Capitol Hill could come by Thanksgiving, he added, with funding to be made available in direct payments, as opposed to loans or some other method.

He said a key point in convincing lawmakers to assist Florida is reminding them that growers are suffering, but not nearly as much as the families throughout the state who work in those groves and “have nothing to pick.”

Putnam, a Bartow native who belongs to a family of longtime citrus growers and cattle ranchers, captured our sentiment when he said Irma delivered a “punch in the gut” to the industry. That’s because citrus growers this year were poised to boost production for the first time in several years, even after witnessing their groves being ravaged by the greening disease.

Despite challenges presented by both Irma and greening, however, Putnam was relatively confident that

Florida’s citrus industry would remain viable for decades to come.

We hope he’s right about that, too. The Citrus Department announced last week that Irma was driving up imports of oranges from Mexico and Brazil to meet demand for food processors in Florida. That’s understandable given the storm’s impact. But we certainly don’t want that to become a long-term trend.

With greening infecting 90 percent of the state’s commercial groves, and after Irma ruined at least half the current crop by uprooting trees or knocking fruit off those that withstood its fierce winds, no one would blame growers for harboring pessimism about the future, or being willing to entertain the siren song of developers.

Yet Putnam reminded us of the industry’s resilience, especially following the bouts with hurricanes in 2004 and ’05, and of its stubborn efforts to battle the greening menace. With that in mind, Putnam noted that it is imperative to explain to consumers everywhere that Florida’s citrus industry will adjust and eventually rebound. We know he’s right about that.

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