Doug Ohlemeier, Eastern Editor
Doug Ohlemeier, Eastern Editor

Florida’s citrus industry suffered a major setback during the fiscal cliff crisis that plagued the nation’s lawmakers.

During the political standoff that marked the opening of the new year, legislation important to the U.S. citrus industry overall — establishment of a national citrus research trust fund — died and was a victim of the political infighting.

The trust fund bill, pushed by Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., would have established a fund dedicated to finding cures for citrus diseases and other threats to the industry.

Money sourced from tariffs importers already pay would fund research to fight citrus greening, a disease that has struck the major citrus producing states.

Citrus industry leaders, however, say that temporary defeat isn’t stopping them from trying to advance the legislation.

While growers and leaders from California, Florida and Texas furiously compete in marketing, they plan to hold hands and walk the floors of Congress to move the bill forward during a Feb. 14 Washington, D.C., “fly-in,” said Mike Sparks, executive vice president and chief executive officer of Lakeland-based Florida Citrus Mutual.

“We clearly have more work to do, but we’re up to the challenge,” Sparks said.

“We’ve pursued this a long time. We’ve pushed this football 95 yards. We have to get it that last 5 yards and push it over the goal line.”

If the industry-appointed board of directors administering the trust fund, which would focus solely on research, determines funding needs to be invested to help one state fight a future disease, the money will be shifted there, he said.

Doug Bournique, executive vice president of the Indian River Citrus League, Vero Beach, Fla., said researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences are getting close to discovering some disease resistance.

He said it’s good that growers have Nelson, a ranking Democratic budget committee member, fighting for them, particularly when the Democrats control the U.S. Senate and the White House.

However, Bournique said even if Jeb Bush and George W. Bush were in elected office, it wouldn’t have been a sure bet that the bill would pass.

“Any other time, it probably would have happened, but with the environment that’s there now, there’s no way it would happen,” Bournique said. “It’s a tough task in this fiscal environment.”

Peter Chaires, executive vice president of Florida Citrus Packers Inc., Lakeland, Fla., said so many people from different state industry organizations spent time fighting for the bill.

“Not everything was pinned on it, but its passage would have been a substantial boost to the program,” Chaires said.

“I can’t say it only slowed us down from finding an answer by two to three years. All we know is the more powder we have in our keg, the better we’ll be especially when we see the disease making inroads in many cases despite our best efforts to combat it.”

He said the cumulative stress from greening, which first affected sweet oranges and then grapefruit, has now moved to some of the specialty fruit, including tangerines, whose burdened trees are producing smaller fruit.

Florida is down to dedicated growers who possess a strong desire to remain in the business and are experimenting with many remedies.

Florida growers and industry leaders continue feverishly working to keep the disease’s advance in check and are investing heavily in solutions to stop it in its tracks.

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