Citrus forecasts stable as Florida farmers wait on federal Irma aid

Lee Herald Favicon 16For the first time since Hurricane Irma, Florida citrus forecasts are steady.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is forecasts still remain on pace for the worst season in over 70 years, according to the latest forecasts released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Friday.

“Florida continues to face its lowest citrus forecast in more than 75 years,” said Shannon Shepp, executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus in a statement Friday. “While the temporary comfort of a stable forecast gives us a moment to breathe it doesn’t hide the fact that this industry remains in crisis due to the impact of Hurricane Irma.”

Since the initial reports of a season which gave glimmers of hope to the state’s beleaguered citrus industry, USDA estimated have continued to drop month after month as growers dealt with a double whammy. Not only were growers grappling with the ongoing scourge of citrus greening, an incurable disease which makes fruit bitter and eventually kills citrus trees, but the impacts of Hurricane Irma in September devastated groves as it ran up the Florida Peninsula and through the state’s “citrus belt.”

Friday’s forecast was stable, projecting a total of 46 million boxes of citrus, 33 percent below last season’s forecast and the initial post-Irma forecasts of 54 million. Citrus crops are reported in terms of 90-pound boxes. Many farmers throughout the state reported losses of 30 to 70 percent of their crops after the hurricane, which caused $760 million in losses for citrus growers alone. Before Irma, preseason forecasts were estimated to increase for 2017-18, at an estimated 75 million boxes.

A flooded grapefruit grove after Hurricane Irma(Photo via Florida Department of Citrus)

“Florida’s iconic citrus industry and its growers continue to struggle with the unprecedented damage caused by Hurricane Irma. This damage, combined with the cumulative impacts of citrus greening, leaves Florida’s growers in desperate need of support,” Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said in a separate statement Friday. “I will continue to work with Governor Scott and leaders in Washington to get Florida’s growers the relief they need to rebuild and replant.”

Putnam, along with Governor Rick Scott and several members of Florida’s congressional delegation, have spent months appealing to Congress for federal assistance to help citrus farmers, part of a $1 billion industry.

In December, an $81 billion disaster funding bill passed through the House of Representatives, which included $2.6 billion in emergency funding for Florida farmers. The state’s Department of Agriculture reported that farmers in total suffered $2.5 billion in losses due to Hurricane Irma.

The bill passed the House on Dec. 21, after being spun off of a resolution keeping the federal government operating through Jan. 19. But it still has to pass through the Senate, which did a second reading of the bill on Jan. 4, but has taken no action since.

Florida’s Senators, Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio, along with Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy, wrote a letter to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell(R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer(D-N.Y.) urging Senate leadership to bring the bill to the floor.

“These disasters caused unprecedented destruction, and yet the federal government has still not provided an acceptable response.  Congress has a duty to fulfill, and a disaster supplemental appropriations bill would provide the federal aid our states and territories were promised months ago,” the letter states. “It is imperative that Americans nationwide know that the federal government is both ready and willing to direct resources needed to help them in the recovery process.”

Scott proposed $22 million in state aid for Florida citrus farmers in his 2018 budget. State legislators are likely to address the matter during the current Legislative Session.

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