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Putnam: Citrus Industry 'In A Fight For Its Life'

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Florida navel oranges

State Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam wants another $8.5 million next year to help fight a deadly citrus disease, as Florida's orange crop was forecast Friday to hit a 52-year low in the upcoming season.

The National Agricultural Statistics Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicted that Florida's signature crop will fill the equivalent of 80 million 90-pound boxes, a 17 percent drop from 96.8 million boxes collected during the 2014-2015 growing season.

Production has declined from a peak of 244 million boxes during the 1997-1998 season.

The industry has been trying to fend off a decrease in agricultural land because of development while also confronting massive losses from the spread of the disease known as citrus greening.

The money requested next year for citrus-disease research is part of $18.7 million Putnam wants from lawmakers for the citrus industry, which has a projected $10.7 billion impact on the state economy.

Florida Agricultural Secretary Adam Putnam

"This initial citrus crop estimate confirms that Florida's citrus industry is in a fight for its life," Putnam said in a prepared statement. "The health of Florida citrus is important to every Floridian --- not just those who depend on it for their livelihoods."

Shannon Shepp, interim executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus, called the forecast "somewhat surprising" while maintaining the industry is "eager to see the beginning of the turnaround we know will take place."

"We know that (citrus) greening has taken a massive toll on our growers," Shepp said in a prepared statement. "We know that there are fewer trees in the ground than there have been, but we also know that our growers have been working very hard to preserve the viability of their groves and maintain the quality of their fruit."

Before the 2015 legislative session, Putnam, who grew up in the citrus and cattle industry in Polk County, asked the Legislature for $18 million, which also was targeted for growing clean citrus stock and planting new trees where diseased trees had been removed.

Lawmakers responded by giving him $8 million, which was still an increase from the $4 million in 2014.

Gov. Rick Scott vetoed another $1.25 million that was budgeted for the Department of Citrus to continue consumer awareness programs, conduct in-state citrus breeding and provide free orange juice to travelers at state welcome centers including ones on Interstates 10, 75 and 95.

In his veto message, Scott said he cut the funding because the services are already paid for through the budgets of the Citrus and Agriculture departments. The Florida Department of Citrus funds itself from citrus revenue.

Friday's forecast also drew a news release from U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., who declared support for soon-to-be-introduced legislation that for 10 years would make the cost of replanting citrus trees tax deductible for growers.

"We must do all we can to find a cure for citrus greening and ensure Florida remains the citrus capital of the world," said Ross, who is from Polk County.

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