The U.S. Department of Agriculture has added another headache to an already weary Florida citrus industry by restricting its shipments to California, Texas, Louisiana, and Arizona, in an effort to reduce the spread of citrus canker.
About 5% of Florida's fresh tangerines, oranges, and grapefruits are shipped to those states each season, according to the Citrus Administrative Committee. Fresh-shipped citrus makes up about 10% of all citrus grown in the state, with the remaining 90% going toward juice production.
Canker, a bacterial disease, is highly contagious and can spread easily through windborne rain, lawnmowers, people with the infection on their clothing, and exposure to infected fruit. Though it's not harmful to humans, canker blemishes fruit and eventually causes the tree to be less productive.
"This option provided the most scientific assurance to combat the spread of canker to other citrus growing states," said Hallie Pickhardt, spokeswoman for the USDA. "This ruling only affects fresh-fruit citrus, which is a small percentage of Florida's citrus industry."
After last year's hurricane season, the USDA decided that the 10-year citrus canker eradication program was no longer effective and moved the focus from eradication to control and management. The eradication program cost more than $500 million and resulted in the destruction of more than 7.5 million commercial trees in groves and 4.3 million trees in nurseries, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture.
Pickhardt said the new ruling is more about regulating fruit movement rather than quarantining. "Florida citrus producers can still ship to 44 states," she said.
Charles H. Bronson, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services commissioner, said he is disappointed with the new ruling. "We feel it went too far and there wasn't enough science to support it," he said.
The department had proposed regulating shipments from the areas and groves where canker is present. Instead the quarantine applies to all of the southern counties in the state.
"It's going to have a heavy affect on shippers of tangerines and grapefruits to California," Bronson said. "There are some that feel they may go out of business because they need to find a new market for their fruit."
A study released by the USDA on March 20 concluded that healthy citrus fruit that has been treated with disinfectant dips is not a spreader for citrus canker. "Even if infected fruit were to enter a canker-free area with susceptible hosts, the establishment of citrus canker via this pathway is highly unlikely." The study is still under review, Pickhardt said.
"Their own scientists say it's OK -- that's what we don't understand," said Liz Compton, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Agriculture.
Bob Roth, owner of Bob Roth's New River Groves, in Davie, Fla., agreed. "They're doing more than what's necessary," he said. "The other citrus-producing states are taking advantage of Florida by saying they don't want our citrus. By doing this they're getting rid of the competition."
Roth said he hopes that by the time the season starts in late September, the USDA will make some considerations. Shipping fresh fruit and gift baskets still makes up 50% of his business, with 5-10% of that shipping to the other citrus-producing states. Roth's company, which has been in business for 42 years, has been diversifying. In addition to selling fresh citrus fruits, he also sells Florida stone crab legs, flowers, and homemade key lime pie.
To combat financial burdens, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns announced on June 8 that $100 million in compensation funds will be released to citrus growers and citrus nurseries impacted by citrus canker. These funds top another $100 million released by the department in February and $200 million in October 2005.
"Many farmers anticipated this money and any amount helps, but this will not offset the damage done to fresh fruit growers by the quarantine," Compton said.