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Citrus growers still waiting for aid

Herald-Tribune – April 9, 2018

Six months after Hurricane Irma strafed the state and two months after President Donald Trump approved a disaster-relief package, Florida’s citrus growers and other farmers now know they will have to wait until July to apply for assistance.

After increased lobbying from the elected representatives of the states affected by 2017′s hurricanes and wildfires last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a program that will release $2.36 billion in aid.

But no one can apply for the assistance yet. USDA says sign-up “will begin no later than July 16.”

The department’s Farm Service Agency will disburse the money to offset losses from hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, primarily in Texas and Florida, and the wildfires in California. The money is part of a new 2017 Wildfires and Hurricanes Indemnity Program, part of a $90 billion disaster relief package the president signed Feb. 9.

The department has not yet said how claims can be filed or how the money will be distributed.

The USDA “is working as quickly as possible to develop procedures and a system by which affected producers can access disaster assistance,” Secretary Sonny Perdue said Friday in the news release.

Florida’s agriculture industry took a $2.5 billion hit from Irma in September, according to an October estimate from the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The state’s struggling citrus industry accounted for $761 million of those losses, according to the initial estimate.

Citrus growers and state lawmakers have estimated that lingering damage has since topped $1 billion.

Members of Florida’s congressional delegation have lobbied Perdue to release the money as the state’s citrus growers express frustration in waiting for federal assistance after last September’s hurricane.

Florida’s U.S. senators joined colleagues from Texas, Louisiana and California in sending a letter last week urging Perdue to speed up the release of the money.

“Florida’s farmers and citrus growers are a vital part of our state’s economy and we need to make sure we’re doing everything we can to help them recover from last year’s storms,” U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said in a news release.

The USDA announcement said farmers seeking aid should contact local USDA service centers about establishing farm records.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam thanked Perdue for moving forward with the “long-awaited” disaster relief.

“We look forward to continuing to work with the USDA to ensure that this program is implemented quickly and in the best way possible to help Florida’s producers recover from the devastating hurricane,” Putnam said in a news release.

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