Rooney introduces bipartisan CITRUS Act to save threatened industry

An estimated 62,000 people depend on Florida citrus for their jobs.
An estimated 62,000 people depend on Florida citrus for their jobs.

Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Okeechobee, announced Thursday that he has introduced the bipartisan CITRUS Act, a bill developed with grower input that will help expedite the delivery of the economic assistance needed in the short-term to save the U.S. domestic citrus industry.

Joined by Rep. David Valadao, R-California, and Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Texas, the CITRUS Act authorizes critical citrus greening disease research programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and improves growers’ access to a program that incentivizes the replanting of healthy trees in ravaged or abandoned groves.

Rooney’s sprawling district extends from Venice and Port Charlotte to Okeechobee and Moore Haven, and includes a slice of Manatee County.

Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, is also a strong supporter of funding to fight the threat of greening.

“Vern supports the legislation and played a key role in creating the citrus extension program back in 2014. Citrus greening is a serious problem in Florida and we need to do everything we can to address it. Vern also introduced separate legislation this year to make it easier for farmers to replant their citrus trees,” Riley Ploch, spokesman for Buchanan, said Thursday.

The CITRUS Act reauthorizes the Citrus Disease Research and Extension Program, originally authored by Rooney in the 2014 Farm Bill, which provides $25 million in annual funding until a cure is found. Additionally, the bill authorizes Citrus Health Response Program (CHRP) and Huanglongbing Multi-Agency Coordination Group (HLB-MAC). These programs are part of a national effort to protect the domestic citrus industry from invasive citrus pests and diseases through partnerships with state departments of agriculture and industry groups.

The bill also expands the USDA’s Tree Assistance Program to incentivize a wider pool of growers to invest in the replacement diseased trees with healthy trees.

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Gary Bradshaw, president of SMR Farms, stands in an orange grove at Lakewood Ranch, where greening is a concern. Herald file photo

The CITRUS Act – The Citrus Investment in Treatment and Research for U.S. Sustainability – aims to address the existential threat to the survival of the U.S. domestic citrus industry. Huanglongbing, better known as HLB or citrus greening disease, has been ravaging citrus groves across the country for nearly a decade.

Florida citrus production has declined more than 60 percent during the past 10 years and in Texas, all citrus producing counties are under quarantine. The disease has spread to the west coast where in California and Arizona, growers are increasingly reporting that diseased trees are threatening their groves.

“The citrus industry in Florida has been fighting citrus greening for years and without immediate action Florida orange juice will be a thing of the past,” said Mike Sparks, executive vice president and CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual.

“This legislation is critical to not only fund research but to help growers replace trees in order to keep producing oranges,” Sparks said.