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Editorial: Congress should help Florida agriculture recover from Irma

Tampa Bay Times – November 24, 2017

Florida agriculture took a beating in September from Hurricane Irma, which caused hundreds of millions of dollars in losses across the citrus, sugar, cattle and dairy industries. Yet despite a personal plea from Gov. Rick Scott, the Trump administration again excluded money for Florida growers from its latest request for federal disaster aid. Agriculture is a vital economic driver in Florida, and it will be up to Congress to deliver the money necessary to help the industry recover.

According to state estimates, the industry least able to withstand heavy losses sustained the most. Citrus crops took a $761 million hit from the September storm, followed by the nursery industry at almost $624 million, according to state estimates. Some growers lost so much of their crop that they would lose money harvesting what little fruit survived.

Florida citrus is already besieged by the deadly greening disease, which turns fruit bitter, and forecasts indicate this year’s harvest may be down 27 percent from last year. Researchers are making progress toward finding a cure for greening, but the industry will need more assistance to sustain itself.

Irma did not spare Florida’s other agriculture sectors, according to state officials. The sugar industry suffered $383 million in losses. Cattle: $237.5 million. Vegetable and fruit growers, not including citrus: $180 million. Dairy: $11.8 million. Florida agriculture employs hundreds of thousands of full- and part-time workers and is the second-biggest economic driver behind tourism. It cannot be neglected.

But those concerns did not make it into the Trump administration’s $44 billion disaster aid package, the third since the summer’s hurricanes. (The first two ignored Florida growers, too.) The latest package shortchanges a wide array of needy constituencies, especially Puerto Rico, and suggests spending cuts to lessen the impact on the federal deficit. Natural disaster assistance is not the area of federal policy to address Washington’s long-term fiscal imbalance, not when so many Puerto Ricans are still waiting for the lights to come back on.

Florida officials and lawmakers were quick to criticize the disaster aid proposal. Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland, said, “The Florida delegation specifically requested this relief because there isn’t a citrus grove that wasn’t affected.” Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Okeechobee, pointed to citrus as part of the identity of Florida. “Do we want to say that orange juice is produced and made in America? Without the inclusion of funds to address citrus crop losses, that is at risk,” Rooney said. Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson also have both appealed for federal help, to no avail.

Last week, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam called on Florida’s representatives in Congress to add help for the state’s farmers and ranchers to the next aid bill it passes. That’s what it will take as long as the Trump administration continues ignoring the very real needs of Florida’s second-largest industry.

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