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Is citrus industry nearing its end? // Ailing crops may spell doom

Published Oct. 16, 2005

The perception is unmistakable: Pasco County's explosive development is moving at such a frenetic pace that soon there'll be no green space left. But when allowed his version of the picture, Ted Williams, the county's property appraiser, blasts the image to smithereens.

"Most of the growth is what I call fluff," he says. "When you think about it, there is not nearly as much development going on as there is talk.

"Most of those planned unit developments and (developments of regional impact) don't have any houses; they don't have any paving.

They're just on paper."

Pasco's boom area is primarily confined to U.S. 19, where cars, traffic lights and fast food restaurants stake their claim. And while there's a spate of planned and actual development in the Land O'Lakes area, the county remains agricultural in nature.

"People who haven't looked at the county and the growth don't understand that when you get just east of the government center in West Pasco, you could get lost," Williams said.

The growth is along the U.S. 19 corridor, and in the Land O'Lakes area along the State Road 54 corridor, Williams said. "Walking to the east, you don't see much except deer and turkey and armadillo and possum and cows and things of that sort," he said.

Williams said about 300,000 of the county's 452,000 acres are zoned agricultural, which is more than the acreage dedicated to farmland 10 years ago.

The 1984 recession stymied the development that had begun taking root before then, he said.

The years on either side of 1984 saw devastating freezes that crippled the county's citrus crops, which dwindled from 36,000 acres to about 2,900 between 1983 and 1985.

By fall 1989, citrus had reclaimed a sizable share of land, boasting some 15,000 acres. But in December, the county suffered another devastating arctic blast.

The future of citrus in Pasco?

"The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind," said Williams, himself a citrus farmer.

"Nobody knows (how bad the damage was). All we know is it was bad.

We won't know how bad for two or three months. We know the fruit got iced. We know a lot of the fruit that got picked got rejected at the plant.

"We know there is not going to be much of a crop, if any, in Pasco next year. We know a lot of trees are going to die. What we don't know is how extensive or how many," he said.

Bill Gilmore, a Dade City farmer who had 300 acres of orange groves before the last freeze, said he's pretty sure he lost half his crop.

He said he'll give up on the dead trees.

"The ones that are salvageable and intact, we'll try to maintain.

Where there's just scattered trees, we'll abandon those groves and look for an alternative on that land," said Gilmore.

A possibility, he said, is organic vegetables.

Gilmore said many farmers who got frozen out probably won't replant as they did after the '83 and '85 freezes because it doesn't appear that government assistance will be available this year.

Although citrus was once again headed toward being one of the county's main crops, egg production has taken the lead in the last few years.

"We're talking about a whole lot of chickens and a whole lot of eggs," Williams said. "Have you ever seen a half-million chickens?

We've got a whole lot more than that in Pasco County."

Besides eggs and chickens and oranges, various other crops - such as pine trees, hay and sod - are proliferating.

As people with farmland decide to replant or try their hands at something new, the future of this county will take shape. While nobody knows for certain how it will turn out, Williams guesses that Pasco won't be changing much any time soon.

"Agriculture's going to be with us for a long time," he said. "It'll still be here."

But some people, such as Gilmore, have different views.

"There doesn't seem to be a lot of interest in salvaging agriculture in Pasco and Hernando (counties)," Gilmore said. "The main emphasis seems to be to allow it to develop if possible and if not, hold it as open land."

Agriculture's future in Pasco is very bleak, Gilmore said, "Mostly because there's people who are not heavily in debt on their land;

there's no incentive. They can plant the pine trees and simply hold their land. People like us who borrowed after the past freezes, we're forced to either replant or liquidate or look for an alternative.

"I think if there would have been viable alternatives, people would have gone to them after the '83 and '85 freezes. Instead, you saw them plant lots of pines trees."

Gilmore says the Pasco citrus farmer - like farmers throughout the nation - is itself a dwindling commodity because of the uncertainty of making a decent living.

"Most of the people (who) have remained in the citrus business are quite elderly. Very few young people have been coming into it," he said.

"I believe this freeze is the last hurrah for this area. I don't believe we'll see any significant replanting."