Agriculture candidate uses citrus canker as main issue

Published July 8, 2006

TALLAHASSEE - An unknown Miami lawyer and businessman is hoping to unseat Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson, a fifth-generation Florida farmer, by making citrus canker the central issue in their race.

Democrat Eric Copeland hopes to convince voters that the Republican incumbent should be held accountable for the state's aborted effort to eliminate citrus canker - an effort he describes as a grotesque failure.

Both are unopposed for their parties' nominations, so the ag race won't get much attention until after the Sept. 5 primary.

With an annual budget that surpasses $352-million, the Agriculture Department has a wide variety of responsibilities, from checking the accuracy of gas station pumps, to inspecting the state's meat, poultry and citrus, to managing forests and consumer protection programs.

Copeland, who concedes that his agriculture background is limited to visiting his grandparents' Illinois farm during his youth, said, "We've spent more than a billion in state and federal money and (face) perhaps another billion in pending lawsuits" related to citrus canker.

Bronson, a career rancher thoroughly schooled in the give-and-take of Florida agriculture, dismisses his opponent's criticism.

It's not the first time he has had the citrus issue lobbed his way. Four years ago, Miami school librarian David Nelson tried a similar tactic, but it didn't stick to the affable Bronson.

The decadelong canker eradication program was ended in February after federal and state officials conceded that the state's spate of hurricanes had spread the disease beyond containment - but not before hundreds of thousands backyard and farm citrus trees had been cut down.

"The hurricanes blew that out the window," Bronson said of the program. But he thinks the agency did its best it could to try to corral the disease.

Bronson wants to move on to other issues, like ethanol production from farm products, while also keeping an eye on such consumer issues as price gouging during hurricanes.

He also is concerned that more agricultural lands and green spaces could be lost to development.