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President vows citrus farm aid

Like many farmers in central Florida, the McKenna family has had three unwelcome visitors in the past six weeks.

Hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne tore through the family's 4,000 acres of citrus groves in Polk, Hardee and Highlands counties, leaving a path of torn up trees and scarred and downed fruit.

On Wednesday, another unexpected visitor showed up. This time a welcome one: President George Bush.

"To know that he's really concerned about us and the other farmers around Florida makes a big difference," said Melody McKenna, the wife of Patrick McKenna, who owns the groves with his brother, Marty. "We heard he might come, but didn't know for sure until yesterday."

The McKenna brothers accompanied the president on a short tour of one section of their groves. Bush then pledged in a short speech to make sure "citrus remains a strong part of this state's economy."

In three separate requests, Bush has asked Congress for a total of $12.2-billion in relief to respond to the season's four hurricanes, including Ivan, which slammed into north Florida earlier this month. About $8-billion would go to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the largest amount provided in response to a natural disaster, Bush said.

Some of the relief funds would help Florida's battered agriculture industry get back on its feet, Bush said.

"I will also ensure that Florida farmers are treated fairly on the global market, and that no country takes advantage of citrus growers during this time of disaster," he said.

The McKenna brothers have farmed the groves for more than 25 years. The hurricanes stole about 50 percent of their crop, though an exact total will not be known until the damage from Jeanne is fully assessed, said Karen McKenna, Marty's wife.

"The hurricanes hit us hard," she said. "It hit the whole industry hard."

The string of hurricanes caused what is thought to be the biggest financial blow ever to state agriculture, exceeding even damage from a series of tree- and fruit-killing freezes in the 1980s.

Total agriculture losses are close to $3-billion, according to a preliminary estimate by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Damages for the state's two largest agricultural exports _ ornamental plants and citrus _ are the greatest, officials say.

Florida Citrus Mutual, the state's largest association of citrus growers, estimated $485-million in damages to the citrus crop from just Hurricanes Charley and Frances. Losses are still being tallied for Ivan and Jeanne.

The grapefruit industry was especially hard hit, with both Jeanne and Frances coming ashore in the heart of Florida's primary grapefruit region.

The Florida Department of Agriculture estimates $530- to $600-million in damages to the ornamental plant industry for the first two hurricanes with damages still being tallied for the other two storms.

"Growers are going to see the impact for years," Dennis Broadaway, general manager of the Haines City Citrus Growers Association, said in a telephone interview. The association is a large cooperative of growers in hard-hit Polk County.

"The growers who have so much damage that they won't have a crop to market, they're going to scratch their heads as to whether they can continue," he said.

The hurricanes hit harder than a typical freeze because much of the fruit was still on the trees, unharvested. In a winter freeze, a quarter to a third of the crop already has been harvested.

U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Bartow, explained that citrus trees only produce once a year. Once about 60 to 70 percent of the fruit is lost from a tree, it often doesn't make economic sense to hire pickers to collect the rest, he said.

Some of the broken and damaged trees will take years to begin producing again. Others will have to be pulled up altogether. The vast majority of Florida oranges are used for juice. The winds, though, even scarred much of the crop earmarked for sale as fresh produce, limiting its value, Putnam said.

"Clearly there is going to be a big reduction in output," Putnam said. "How big? We don't know yet."

Bush thanked Putnam for his leadership and then good naturedly teased the red-headed congressman for his knowledge and support of the citrus industry.

"Every time I see Adam, all he does is talk about oranges," Bush said with a smile. "His hair is kind of orange."

Bush did not answer any questions from news reporters during his visit.

This was the fifth time in six weeks Bush has comforted hurricane victims in Florida. In his speech, Bush praised emergency response teams for acting swiftly and for saving lives. He also thanked relief organizations, including the Salvation Army and the Red Cross, for their ongoing efforts.

"Across the state, people are showing great compassion and helping their neighbors make it through these storms," he said. "I thank them for their care and their decency."

Bush was joined by his brother Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida Agricultural Commissioner Charles Bronson and Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Ann M. Veneman, among others. After the visit to the Lake Wales area, he flew via helicopter back to MacDill Air Force Base and boarded Air Force One for a flight to Miami.

Bush is expected to visit today the area on Florida's east coast where hurricanes Jeanne and Frances did much of their damage. Tonight, he debates Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.

Graham Brink can be reached at (813) 226-3365 or brinksptimes.com.

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