Florida U.S. Senator Marco Rubio met with Southwest Florida citrus growers Friday in Immokalee to discuss challenges facing the industry and how the federal government can help. The bacterial disease, citrus greening, has decimated the industry over the past decade, reducing crop yields by 70 percent compared to where they stood twenty years ago.
Rubio met with members of the Gulf Citrus Growers Association at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences’ Southwest Florida Research and Education Center in Immokalee to discuss their concerns for the state’s $9 billion citrus industry that remains ravaged by greening, a bacterial disease spread by an invasive Asian psyllid. Since 2005, the disease has spread to more than 160,000 acres of groves in Florida and has spread to other states as well. Rubio said combating the disease is critical to Florida’s overall economy.
“So our goal is to do two things. Number one is to continue to make sure the funds are available for research to be able to mitigate and hopefully one day cure this pestilence,” said Rubio.
“And the second thing is to make it easier for those who are in citrus who lose their crops to be able to reinvest and plant again because if they can’t, many won’t and then we’ll lose that land to development and you’re never going to get it back.”
To that end, Rubio along with fellow Florida U.S. Senator Bill Nelson reintroduced the Emergency Citrus Disease Response Act earlier this month. The measure would modify IRS tax code to allow growers to deduct the full cost of planting new trees immediately instead of over a 14-year period under current IRS rules. That measure passed the U.S. House in 2016, but failed to pass in the Senate before Congress adjourned. Experts predict growers will need to plant some 20 million new trees to bring citrus production levels back up to where they were before greening.
Gulf Citrus Growers Association members also voiced support for a move by U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Okeechobee, requesting $58 million to support research efforts through the Citrus Health Management Program.
So far, those efforts have helped growers slow the effects of greening, but there is still no ‘silver bullet’ for eradicating the disease. “Through this research effort we are learning more about the disease and learning better ways of keeping trees healthier longer and keeping the fruit on the trees which is critical,” said Gulf Citrus Growers Association Executive Vice President Ron Hamel. “So every little bit helps.”
At the state level, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam is asking lawmakers to maintain the current budget of $8 million to combat citrus greening in the legislative session that begins in March. Putnam is also requesting $7.1 million for the Citrus Health Response Program and another $2.5 million for the Citrus Inspection Trust Fund.
Growers also discussed reforms to the country’s H-2A guest worker program that allows farmers to hire foreign workers on a seasonal basis if they prove that they cannot find a steady domestic labor supply.
Hamel said growers find the current visa system unnecessarily burdensome, costly and too complex.
“So revamping that program, making it a little more user friendly, encouraging folks to come and harvest is a very positive thing,” said Hamel. “So hopefully with all the broader issue of immigration reform we can address that.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest projection for the current growing season predicts Florida growers will produce 72 million 90-pound boxes of oranges. That is down from 81.6 million boxes in the last growing season and down from a high of 244 million boxes in the 1997-1998 season.
Despite the challenges facing the industry, Gulf Citrus Growers’ Ron Hamel said he left the meeting with Sen. Rubio feeling positive. “The senator’s always been 110 percent supportive of our Florida citrus industry and our Florida agriculture and his interaction with the growers today just kind of reiterate that as far as this region’s concerned,” said Hamel.