The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Tuesday took the first step in laying out new ground rules for dealing with canker and other diseases that are threatening the vitality of Florida’s multibillion dollar citrus industry.
The department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has put out a Citrus Health Response Plan draft that would create a new compliance program and establish new standards aimed at minimizing the spread of citrus canker, a bacterial disease Florida’s citrus industry has fought to eliminate unsuccessfully for a decade.
In response, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services lifted its ban on planting residential citrus trees in canker quarantine zones.
The rules in the new Citrus Health Response Plan would apply to both residential and commercial growers, as well as harvesters, packers, processors and nursery owners.
The draft plan comes nearly two months after the USDA pulled the plug on Florida’s controversial citrus canker eradication program. The program required infected and exposed trees within 1,900 feet to be destroyed. After the 2004 and 2005 hurricanes spread canker across the state, the USDA determined it was no longer possible to eliminate the disease.
“As promised, we have worked hard with our state, industry and university counterparts to develop a viable plan that will enable Florida to produce, harvest, process and ship healthy citrus in the presence of citrus canker,” said Ron DeHaven, APHIS administrator, in a statement. “We are now giving producers, nursery owners and residents an opportunity to comment on this plan so we can move quickly to ensure Florida citrus can be shipped safely.”
Among the recommendations in the plan are to require the registration of all citrus producers, nurseries, harvesters and packing houses; the inspection of all nursery plants before they are moved so they can be certified as disease-free; the inspection of all citrus within 90 days of harvest; the decontamination of clothes, equipment and vehicles; and the continuation of surveillance by government officials to identify new infections.
It would also be mandatory for growers to do regular surveys of their groves and to keep detailed records of what they find.
“More will be required of the growers very soon,” said Tyrone Kemp, a USDA spokesman in Florida.
The plan could see a lot of changes before it’s implemented.
“It’s a work in progress,” Kemp said. “It’s a living document.”
The hope is to implement the plan by July 1, he said.
Southwest Florida’s growers were still reviewing the plan Tuesday. Some had yet to see it.
“These are very radical times for the industry,” said Robert Coker, a vice president for Southern Gardens Citrus in Clewiston. “We are having to undergo significant changes in terms of eradication and now we are having to come up with new programs that are going to hopefully provide a means for us to learn to live with these very serious diseases.”
Last month the state lifted the ban on replanting citrus trees in commercial groves that had been quarantined because of canker. Extending that right to residents came as good news locally.
Cape Coral resident Dee Klockow, who lost five citrus trees to the state’s canker eradication program three years ago, plans to go on a shopping spree today. Because of new canker outbreaks in the city she has been unable to replace her beloved citrus trees until now.
She and her husband have saved three spots in their yard for citrus. And they know exactly what trees they want — a mercot orange, a ruby red grapefruit and a mixed fruit tree.
“I’m very particular,” she said. “It just like getting an animal or something, like adding something to your family.”
The Klockows, along with a handful of other Cape Coral residents, are plaintiffs in a class-action suit that claims the state didn’t pay enough for their chopped-down trees. The state gave them a $100 Wal-Mart voucher for the first tree destroyed and they received $55 for each additional tree lost to state canker crews.
Dee Klockow is just glad the state’s canker program has come to an end.
“The joke is done,” she said. “It was ill-conceived as far as I’m concerned. It’s just like the war in Iraq, the whole thing was wrong from the start. It remains wrong.”
Liz Compton, a Florida Department of Agriculture spokeswoman, said the Citrus Health Response Plan leaves a lot of questions unanswered.
“I think there will be a lot of public vetting on this before a final document is approved,” Compton said.
The plan would require new laws in Florida and rules changes at the state and federal level, she said. The hope is to get those changes approved by the Florida Legislature this session. The session began Tuesday.
The Florida Department of Agriculture has asked for the repeal of the 1,900-foot law during this session. Although the canker eradication program has stopped, the rule is still on the books.
Nursery growers may be the most affected by the new Citrus Health Response Plan. The draft plan would require them to build new structures to better protect their young plants from diseases — including greening, a fatal disease that was recently discovered in Florida.
The plan also suggests that nurseries be more restrictive with visitors and that nurseries no longer be located in citrus-producing areas, which would shift the industry to northern Florida.
Ron Hamel, executive director of the Gulf Citrus Growers Association, which represents the region’s growers, said he’s gotten mixed signals from growers who have participated in the drafting of the new rules.
“I think growers seem to be a little frustrated that they really haven’t been able to build what I would call a strong consensus as to what ultimately we need to do,” he said. “Right now everything is out on the table. We are trying to get a feel for what is the best and most effective collective plan to address all aspects of dealing with canker and greening as we move forward.”
Florida Citrus Mutual’s board is expected to meet to discuss the draft plan today. The group is the largest representative for growers in the state.
On Friday, the Citrus Canker Technical Advisory Task Force expects to meet in Lake Alfred to discuss the plan.
The cost to growers has yet to be determined and that will be critical in gaining their support, Hamel said.
“Obviously the economics are going to have to work or the industry is going to be in trouble,” he said.
New canker plan
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has issued a Citrus Health Response Plan draft that would set new standards for dealing with canker and other threatening citrus diseases. The draft plan is available online at www.aphis.usda.gov/ppq/pdmp/citrushealth/.
Residents, growers and others in the citrus industry are encouraged to give their input. Comments can be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.