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Citrus forecast steady as growers await aid

Citrus forecast steady as growers await aid

Image: Brian Blanco via News4JAX

Florida struggling citrus crop, fighting disease and battered by Hurricane Irma, held steady over the past month in a newly released forecast.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated Thursday that Florida will grow enough oranges in the current season to fill 45 million 90-pound boxes, a mark unchanged from a February forecast.

However, that would still be a major drop from production during the 2016-2017 season, when the industry produced enough oranges to fill 68.7 million boxes, which itself was a five-decades low.

Meanwhile, estimated grapefruit production in the latest forecast held at 4.65 million boxes for the fourth consecutive month, but the number represents a nearly 40 percent reduction from the past growing season.

In trying to put a positive spin on the forecast, Shannon Shepp, executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus, noted there was a “small increase” in specialty fruit, which includes tangerines and tangelos. Also, a new federal disaster-relief package will provide aid to the industry.

“With the recent passing of federal disaster recovery relief and a fresh bloom on the trees, Florida’s growers can again focus on what matters most: growing the best tasting oranges and grapefruit in the world,” Shepp said in a prepared statement.

The Florida agriculture industry, now facing its lowest output since World War II, suffered approximately $2.5 billion in losses from Irma, of which at least $761 million was felt by the citrus industry.

On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., tweeted that he met with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to urge speeding up the distribution of money to Florida from the nearly $90 billion disaster relief package approved by Congress in February.

“He said help will arrive within weeks, not months,” Nelson tweeted of his response from Perdue.

Two days earlier, Nelson on the Senate floor called out the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. Department of Agriculture for “foot dragging” on the distribution of the disaster relief package.

“This is so frustrating because the administration knew that Congress was discussing a disaster supplemental bill way back when Hurricane Harvey hit in August on Texas, and then Irma hit, and then Maria hit,” Nelson said on the Senate floor. “Now, six months later, most of the federal agencies are just starting to dust off their pencils and figure out how they are going to allocate the funding.”

The package, intended to assist with damages from Hurricane Harvey in Texas, Irma in Florida and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, includes $2.36 billion for agriculture damages in Florida.

Even before Irma hit in September, citrus growers had been battling for a decade against citrus greening disease, which has decimated groves.

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