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Florida citrus growers pushing Washington hard for disaster-relief money

The Ledger – November 30, 2017

WINTER HAVEN – The time for talking has passed, and the time for action has arrived.

Florida citrus officials this week have mounted a furious lobbying campaign to be included in the latest federal disaster-relief legislation scheduled to be voted on this month.

“We’ve had many promises and commitments, and now it’s time to make good on those,” said Mike Sparks, chief executive at Bartow-based Florida Citrus Mutual, the growers’ trade group, in a Thursday phone interview with The Ledger. “This is our next and possibly last opportunity. We’re pulling out all the stops.”

Sparks led the delegation, including 12 citrus growers, that arrived Monday and has been talking with congressional and Trump administration supporters about the Florida citrus industry’s need for financial assistance following Hurricane Irma in September. The hurricane blanketed the state’s citrus-growing area extending from I-4 south for several hours.

Officials think the storm blew off at least half the 2017-18 season’s orange, grapefruit and tangerine crop as well as blowing over thousands of trees and damaging millions more. The tree damage will affect the crop sizes for the next several seasons.

The Trump administration has proposed a new $44 billion disaster-relief package that would cover damages from Irma as well as Hurricane Harvey that struck Texas in August and Hurricane Maria that devastated Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands later in September.

The proposal is the third round of federal disaster assistance this year, and the previous two did not include financial assistance to growers for the crop and tree losses. It did include low-interest loan programs to compensate growers and non-growers for building and other infrastructure losses

“Unfortunately, Florida agriculture’s needs were largely ignored in the recent request for a third supplemental from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) as well,” said Commissioner Adam Putnam, head of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, in a Tuesday letter to Florida’s congressional delegation.

Putnam noted the disaster money in the OMB proposal would be offset by drawing against other federal programs that benefit Florida citrus, especially money to fight the fatal bacterial disease citrus greening.

“I am alarmed by the apparent lack of concern shown by OMB toward the needs of agriculture in the aftermath of such a historic storm,” he added.

Putnam called for support of a proposal from U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Okeechobee, that would give the U.S. Department of Agriculture $1.5 billion for disaster relief.

The state Agriculture Department has estimated Irma caused $2.5 billion in damages to Florida agriculture, including $760.8 million to the citrus industry. Florida agriculture contributes $120 billion annually to the state’s economy, including about $9 billion from citrus.

This week’s Washington trip included a Tuesday evening reception for the Florida congressional delegation, which drew legislators from other states, Sparks said. The state delegation is solidly behind the industry’s efforts.

“The Florida delegation is in agreement that Congress must include relief for Florida agriculture in the upcoming aid package,” agreed U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland, in a Thursday press statement. “As representatives of Florida, it is our duty to advocate for those who have been devastated by Hurricane Irma and citrus greening. We must join together to ensure that Florida is not left behind.”

Not yet certain is whether Congress will consider the new disaster-relief package as a stand-alone bill or as part of continuing resolution needed to keep the federal government open, Sparks said. The latter must be passed by Dec. 8 to avoid a government shutdown.

“That’s why it’s critically important we be up here this week,” said Sparks, referring to the Dec. 8 deadline. “It appears Congress is looking at the OMB proposal in more detail. We expect that number to go up.”

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