President Biden has abandoned Florida's citrus growers. I'm fighting for them

August 23, 2023

Sarasota Herald Tribune
Sen. Rick Scott
August 23, 2023

When disaster strikes, Floridians expect their government to show up. Families in our state aren’t looking for a handout, they are hoping to recover. But since Hurricanes Ian and Nicole wreaked havoc on Southwest Florida last fall, politicians in Washington and the Biden administration have left our Florida families and businesses, and especially  our citrus industry, without needed assistance.

Even now, the Biden administration wants to tie the funding FEMA needs to respond to future storms to completely unrelated issues, like Ukraine aid. Floridians, and especially our citrus growers, don’t deserve to be used as a political pawn. I’ve been fighting since these storms to get our families and growers what they need, and I’m asking every Floridian to stand up and help me make Florida’s voice heard so we can ensure America’s favorite breakfast drink, Florida orange juice, stays on our kitchen table.

Citrus is iconic to Florida: For more than 500 years, citrus trees have grown and flourished in the Sunshine State. Groves and the fruit they produce are a central part of the Florida economy and can be seen on roads and highways throughout the state, including in the center of our license plate. 

What many outside of rural Florida may not know is just how critical citrus growers are to Florida’s economy and to preserving our state’s natural beauty. Citrus contributes $6.7 billion to our state’s economy each year, and its 400,000 acres of groves play an important role in protecting Florida’s precious ecosystem. Citrus groves provide critical habitat for 159 species of native wildlife, purify the air we breathe and filter water to recharge our underground water supplies.

On Sept. 28, 2022, when Hurricane Ian made landfall on Florida’s Gulf Coast, it devastated everything in its path, including more than 93% of citrus groves across the Sunshine State.

The hardest hit groves were subject to hurricane-force winds and unprecedented flooding. Strong winds led to damage, such as fruit drop and loss of foliage, and tree roots suffered severely from the standing water and widespread flooding. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services estimates Hurricane Ian inflicted up to $675 million in damages to Florida's citrus growers.  

About a month later, Florida’s badly damaged groves were hit by another hurricane – Hurricane Nicole. Some growers reported a near-total loss of their crop for the season.

Federal government must act

One of the most important roles of the federal government is to provide relief and support recovery in the wake of disaster. As governor of Florida, I oversaw recovery from multiple devastating hurricanes, including Michael, Irma, Hermine and Matthew. We were able to support the recovery of Florida’s citrus groves with the help of a Block Grant program funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

In response to Hurricane Ian, Congress appropriated $3.7 billion in December to provide aid for agricultural losses due to hurricanes and other natural disasters as part of the federal omnibus bill. I fought to make sure growers got the direct relief they deserve. But my efforts were blocked by Democrats in the Senate and not a single one of these dollars has reached Florida’s citrus growers. This is wrong.

Immediately following that setback, I, along with several of my colleagues, proposed the Block Grant Assistance Act to renew the authority for the Block Grant program that has successfully supported citrus recovery in the past. This law would codify the authority the USDA has, and has used in the past, to distribute relief to the citrus industry.

The Block Grant Assistance Act passed the House in June, but the legislation is stalled in the Democrat-controlled Senate. This legislation is critical to provide the hurricane relief citrus growers desperately need to recover from hurricane damages.

Even without my Block Grant Assistance Act, the USDA has the disaster relief funds appropriated by Congress to distribute relief to growers. As it stands now, the USDA has abandoned Florida citrus growers, leaving them with no other option but to sell their land to developers and forever shrinking Florida’s farmland.

If the USDA believes it does not have the authority needed to fulfill their mission of “protect[ing] the health and value of American agriculture and natural resources,” they should ask my colleagues in Congress to support the Block Grant Assistance Act and allow the state to distribute disaster aid to growers. Unfortunately, the Biden administration has decided to abandon the Florida citrus industry.

Damage has affected crops

Florida’s citrus growers are no strangers to adversity. They have survived hurricanes, freezes, pests and disease in recent decades. Growers are incredibly resilient, and they are committed to delivering fresh, wholesome Florida orange juice. But we cannot expect these hardworking families to simply get by when faced with the compounding setbacks of hurricane damages and citrus greening.

At its peak during the 1997-98 season, the Florida citrus growers harvested 244 million boxes of oranges. This season, however, produced just 15.85 million boxes – representing just 6.4% of the industry's peak production. 

The Florida citrus industry, like all Floridians, pay federal taxes. When disaster strikes, our citrus growers and all Floridians deserve a federal government which has our back. Unfortunately, that is not happening. We all must stand up and demand that the Senate passes my Block Grant Assistance Act.

We cannot wait for action any longer.

Federal relief is critical so Florida’s citrus growers can continue to replant their groves and produce delicious, wholesome juice for families across America.

Republican Rick Scott represents Florida in the United States Senate. He served as the governor of Florida from 2011 to 2019.