The fruit that broke the relief package?

With Jenny Hopkinson, Helena Bottemiller Evich, Megan Cassella and Sabrina Rodriguez

THE FRUIT THAT BROKE THE RELIEF PACKAGE? As Congress mulls the next influx of cash for hurricane- and wildfire-affected areas, Florida lawmakers are doing everything they can to make sure the state’s storied citrus industry gets relief — including by threatening a “no” vote in numbers.

“There’s nothing in the supplemental relief package for Florida agriculture,” Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.) told MA. “Those of us in the Florida delegation are now starting to get very concerned and are proposing that we are not going to vote for any supplemental relief package absent some assistance for Florida agriculture.”

The entire Florida delegation isn’t officially on board, but Ross said that as he presses the idea he hasn’t “gotten any ‘nos’ yet; I’ve got only ‘yeses.’” The House delegation has 27 members — 16 Republicans and 11 Democrats. That wouldn’t be enough to imperil the bill without help from elsewhere, but there are rumblings of discontent from some quarters of Texas, which has asked for $61 billion via the next emergency funding package — well north of the $44 billion the White House has requested, which would allocate just under $1 billion for USDA relief efforts.

Third time’s the charm? House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen(R-N.J.) said Wednesday that Congress’ disaster-aid package — the third this year — would exceed the White House’s request, potentially setting up a showdown within the GOP. Florida officials, including Gov. Rick Scott and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, have worked with the delegation to secure aid for specialty crops, but were unsuccessful in getting money in the first two packages or the White House’s latest request.

Feeling the squeeze: Florida’s citrus industry has been crippled in recent years by disease, and Hurricane Irma was another crushing blow. The 50 million boxes farmers are expected to harvest in the 2017-2018 season will be the smallest crop in 70 years, and a far cry from the more than 242 million boxes brought in during the 2003-04 season. The state’s agriculture department estimates the storm caused more than $760 million in damage, knocking young fruit off branches and uprooting trees. Some groves that survived were later destroyed by standing water that inundated farms for weeks after Irma swept northward.

Crop insurance concerns: While other Florida producers are struggling to rebuild after the storm, citrus is having a particularly hard time, due to the scourge of citrus greening disease and issues with crop insurance, which has been the main mechanism for farmers looking to be made whole after the storms. Only catastrophic coverage is available to specialty crop growers, so the insurance is expensive and only covers about 50 percent of a crop’s value. Any losses below that level aren’t covered, and claims that are filed tend to receive small payouts. Florida lawmakers are looking for a fix in the next farm bill, but citrus farmers need help to carry them through until then.

“You can’t leave us out,” Ross said.

Looking toward 2018: Continue reading…

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