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State loses battle to get rid of canker

The USDA says the citrus disease is too widespread and the state must come up with a new plan.

Published January 12, 2006

TALLAHASSEE - Citrus canker, the disease that has bedeviled Florida for more than a decade, cannot be eradicated because hurricanes the past two years have spread the bacteria far and wide, federal officials have concluded.

That means the end of millions of federal dollars used to fight the disease, Florida's agriculture department announced Wednesday.

Rather than eliminate canker, Florida now will try to contain it, leaving the disease as a permanent threat to the state's second-largest agriculture crop. That has the industry worried about its future.

The new approach could spare millions of healthy trees that would have been destroyed under the more aggressive plan Florida has used for the past nine years.

Under that policy, all trees within 1,900 feet of an infected tree were destroyed, angering some farmers and homeowners and leading to numerous court battles. About 8-million commercial trees and 640,000 residential trees were destroyed in the past nine years.

Now, only infected trees will be eliminated.

While diseased trees will be destroyed, it is unclear who will bear the expense, which was formerly underwritten by state and federal funds. The federal government wants to see a new plan before commiting to further funding.

Whether the new containment strategy will succeed, or Florida's citrus crop will survive, is unclear less than a year after state lawmakers named the orange the official state fruit.

"It scares the hell out of me, to be honest," said state Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, a fourth-generation Florida citrus grower.

Alexander's company has lost 1,500 acres to the eradication efforts he helped craft. Those efforts have cost close to $500-million in state and federal funds.

"Hopefully, we can encourage our research scientists to work even harder to find a way out," Alexander said. "We can now give people hope with AIDS; maybe we can beat this, too."

Gov. Jeb Bush and Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson also said they would not give up.

"I'm not going to accept the notion that the industry is dead because of canker," Bush said. "So we are going to have to develop a policy of some kind to protect the citrus growers and allow them to continue to grow the crop."

In a Jan. 10 letter to Bronson, Chuck Conner, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said the agency held several meetings with industry experts in Florida in the past two months.

"It was their conclusion that the disease is now so widely distributed that eradication is infeasible," he said.

The federal government has been spending about $36-million a year on canker eradication, and Conner said it was clear that significantly more would be needed to continue the program because hurricanes have spread canker over a wider area.

The state has about 680,000 acres in citrus production. Experts say hurricanes the past two years could have spread the deadly canker over as much as 25 percent of that acreage, potentially forcing its destruction.

Citrus generates $1-billion in revenues, employs 90,000 people and has an estimated $9-billion economic impact. Only in the past five years has its reign as Florida's top crop been replaced by nursery plants.

Canker causes unsightly lesions on citrus trees and fruit. It weakens the tree, leading to decreased fruit production, but does not kill it. The bacteria is harmless to humans and animals.

While the cost of destroying trees had been shared by the state and federal government, compensation to commercial growers came from the federal government at a cost of about $26 a tree.

Homeowners, meanwhile, were compensated by a state program that gave them a Wal-Mart voucher for new plant products.

That compensation, however, did little to assuage the bad will that developed in parts of South Florida between tree-loving residents and the industry during a series of long court battles.

Florida Citrus Mutual, which represents growers, will work with state and federal officials on a new approach to fighting canker, the group's spokeswoman Casey Pace said.

"We're going to be asking scientists at the University of Florida to help develop production practices to deal with a different situation," she said. "We'll also be asking them to expedite the development of disease-resistant varieties, though since a tree is not in production for five to seven years, it's still kind of long-term."

Harold Browning, director of citrus research and education at UF in Lake Alfred, said his group's suggestions would range from common sense management practices that contain canker to training growers to identify the disease.

"The eradication effort had pre-empted everything," Browning said. "Now we want to focus our resources on pinpointing the sources of infection most effectively."

Browning said everyone in the state's citrus industry recognized the canker strategy had to change after two brutal hurricane seasons. "Maybe this will help us move out of the feeling of disruption and chaos we've been in for the past two years," he said. Browning would not speculate on when - or if - the state might regain the upper hand in the battle against canker.

"In the absence of future big hurricanes, maybe we can get back to taking measures to push it to extinction," he said. "But the predictions for a sustained cycle of hurricanes don't point us in that direction."

Information from the Lakeland Ledger was used in this report.

[Last modified January 15, 2006, 10:27:54]

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