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Abandoned citrus groves in Hillsborough breed disease

WIMAUMA — Travis Council does everything he can to protect his precious citrus groves from deadly diseases, but it's a constant battle with abandoned groves nearby.

What may be unsightly rows of dying trees to passing residents is a breeding ground for disease-carrying bugs that threaten growers' livelihood. Insects carry the catastrophic citrus greening disease between groves, and the fatal citrus canker disease is spread by the wind.

Hillsborough County is home to about 4,000 acres of abandoned groves, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics released last fall. Pasco isn't far behind with about 2,400 acres.

They sit along main thoroughfares in Odessa, Plant City and Ruskin. Even in more urbanized areas, including Northdale and Brandon, plots of dying trees remain.

Often, these dying groves have been ravaged by disease. Sometimes the farmer just isn't making enough money to justify working the land. But a sluggish real estate market has prevented them from turning to the once-popular option of selling the land to developers.

To help reduce the constantly increasing acreage of abandoned groves, agriculture experts have come up with a plan.

This year, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services will locate every abandoned grove in the state and contact the owners to find out their plans for the property. Then, the agency will encourage the owners to remove the trees, said Richard Gaskalla, the director of the division of plant industry.

The incentive: saving thousands of dollars a year on property taxes.

Growers who remove their trees can still qualify for greenbelt classification that year because they are carrying out an agricultural practice, Gaskalla said.

Those who don't will lose the classification and the savings that come with it, he said.

The specifics are left up to each county's property appraiser, which sends inspectors to each grove annually.

If a grove looks uncared for, inspectors will request the owner's financial records to make sure the groves are commercial, said Jim Glaros, assistant chief deputy of Hillsborough County's property appraiser's office.

"This year, we're sending some letters out to the really questionable ones because every year they get worse and worse," he said.

That will help farmers such as Council, who are battling citrus diseases each day. He can't afford to spray nearby groves with pesticides in order to protect his own trees in Wimauma and Ruskin, so the state's efforts will help, he said.

"If the grove is truly abandoned," he said, "it needs to go away one way or another."

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2443.

Abandoned citrus groves in Hillsborough breed disease 03/01/09 [Last modified: Monday, March 9, 2009 12:32pm]
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