1. Opinion

Column: Citrus industry hurt by Irma needs federal disaster help

Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017, is a day citrus growers will not soon forget. Hurricane Irma made landfall in the southern part of the peninsula near Marco Island and made its way up through the heart of the Florida citrus industry.

It was a methodical march through Collier, Lee, Charlotte, DeSoto, Highlands, Hendry, Hardee, Glades and Polk counties, with winds of up to 110 miles per hour. Trees were ripped from the ground, fruit blew around like lottery ping-pong balls, and groves became lakes with standing water halfway up trunks.

Irma was so large there really wasn't a part of our 450,000-acre industry that was not affected by the storm, from the Indian River grapefruit region on the east coast to Lake County northwest of Orlando to the flatwoods down south.

Many folks thought 2017-18 was going to be a rebound season after a tough decade fighting an insidious disease known as HLB, which has left a trail of misery throughout the industry. The tools we've developed to fight the disease were working and created a wave of optimism among growers.

Irma ruined it.

In some areas, Irma blew 100 percent of the fruit off the tree, and in other cases it uprooted 100 percent of the trees. The storm submerged entire blocks of trees under water. Compounding the problem was that the eastern side of the storm, which is the strongest side, ripped through our primary growing regions. We estimate almost 60 percent of this year's statewide crop was lost. The Florida Department of Agriculture conservatively pegs the dollar value at $760 million.

This will take years to truly shake out, as stressed trees become less productive over time. Already, family-owned citrus businesses are closing because of Irma. The slide of an iconic industry continues.

Citrus growers are now asking the Florida congressional delegation to push through a citrus relief/rebuild package designed to get growers back on their feet and save communities across the state's heartland.

Put simply, we need a federal investment to sustain our industry. Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and the entire Florida congressional delegation, led by Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson as well as Reps. Tom Rooney of Okeechobee, Vern Buchanan of Sarasota and Dennis Ross of Lakeland, have done yeoman's work for the Florida citrus industry in the wake of Irma.

But we missed out on the first round of federal disaster relief in October, and a citrus-specific package was not included in the second disaster bill unveiled this month by the Office of Management and Budget. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue came to Florida days after Irma and witnessed the devastation firsthand, flying over scrambled groves and talking to emotionally raw citrus growers. He assured us aid was on the way. So citrus' omission by the OMB is puzzling and frustrating.

During the debate on the bill over the next week, Congress and the Trump administration must understand that if citrus continues to be ignored, a way of life will disappear and the economic ramifications to Florida's interior communities will be far-reaching and brutal. Truck dealers, churches, youth sports, banks, restaurants and charities that rely on citrus will cease to exist. Shoppers can forget Indian River ruby red grapefruit, golden honeybells and juicy Valencias. Groves will be abandoned and an industry that helps form the rich character of our state will not recover.

I've said it before, and I will say it again: Resilience is a hallmark of the of Florida citrus grower. Growers are proud to produce products that support the economy, taste good and are good for you. Many citrus families have done it for three, four and five generations while facing a number of crises including drought, freezes, disease and other hurricanes. We will survive Irma, I have no doubt.

We just need help.

Michael W. Sparks is executive vice president and CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual, the state's largest citrus grower organization with about 8,000 members.