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Editorial: Give citrus industry hurricane relief

Herald-Tribune – November 1, 2017

Congress squeezed out Florida’s citrus industry. Again.

Despite optimism among Florida’s congressional delegation that aid for the state’s iconic — and imperiled — industry would be included in this year’s third hurricane-relief bill, the package left citrus growers and processors with sour tastes in their mouths.

The industry has been hit hard, first, by citrus greening, which is linked to a bacterial disease. Ironically, according to University of Florida researchers, one of the first signs of greening is yellowing of leaves. Eventually the productivity of diseased trees declines and part of the fruit remains green. Much of the fruit drops prematurely from afflicted trees and the taste of oranges, for instance, may become salty and bitter.

As a result, estimates of citrus production continued to decline this year.

The latest blow to the industry, from Hurricane Irma, damaged countless trees and knocked much of their developing fruit to the ground — prompting the state Citrus Commission to further lower production estimates. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services projected that Irma would have a $2.5 billion impact on Florida’s citrus industry, which includes not only groves but packinghouses and processors such as Tropicana Products in Bradenton, a leading employer in the Manatee-Sarasota region. Some experts estimate that more than half of this year’s crop was lost due to the storm.

Additional evidence of Irma’s impact: State officials recently said they anticipate that imported orange juice, mainly from Mexico and Brazil, will surpass the volume of juice produced in Florida from fruit grown in the Sunshine State.

Florida’s crops might be able to recover, especially as consumers trend toward locally produced goods, but not without assistance.

In light of the citrus industry’s continued importance to Florida’s economy, despite the struggles, federal aid was warranted as part of hurricane-relief legislation.

U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, a Republican whose district include much of Manatee and Sarasota counties, introduced the “Emergency Citrus Disease Response Act” in January. The proposed act is now co-sponsored by all members of Congress representing Florida.

The original, sensible intent of the proposal — to make it more feasible economically for growers to replace crops damaged by citrus greening — was appropriately expanded in the bill to do the same for trees downed or seriously damaged by Hurricane Irma.

Currently, growers can deduct the costs of planting citrus trees over a 14-year period. Buchanan’s bill, which has a nearly identical mate in the Senate (sponsored by Democrat Bill Nelson of Florida), would allow growers to immediately deduct those costs. The House bill would allow the deduction if a grower uses capital from investors, so long as the grower maintains a majority stake in the grove.

In late September, Buchanan issued a press release that said the citrus act would be in the “next hurricane relief package,” citing assurances from Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady, a Republican from Texas.

Unfortunately, citrus was squeezed out of the relief bill passed at the end of October, leaving Buchanan and Floridians to again hope that relief is contained in the next package.

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