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Rick Scott activates a $25 million emergency loan program for citrus growers affected by Hurricane Irma.

APolitical

Citrus aid moves a step closer

 As a new citrus growing season gets underway, federal assistance tied to the hurricane-ravaged 2017-2018 harvest is finally moving into the application phase.

The state Division of Emergency Management announced Friday it has secured a $343 million block grant that was part of a wider disaster-relief package signed into law in February by President Donald Trump. The agency also said a series of four application workshops will be held this month for growers.

“Thanks to the hard work of so many, this much-needed piece of disaster assistance is finally on the way and will go a long way to help Florida’s citrus industry rebuild,” Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said in a prepared statement.

Gov. Rick Scott said in a statement that the money will “help our hard-working growers continue to rebuild and ensure that Florida remains synonymous with citrus.”

The block grant, part of a $2.36 billion package Congress directed to agricultural businesses damaged by hurricanes and wildfires in 2017, is designed to help the struggling citrus industry, which suffered at least $761 million in losses from Hurricane Irma.

With many farmers facing years of diminished crops, the citrus block-grant application workshops will be held Sept. 24 in Fort Pierce, Sept. 27 in Lake Alfred and Sebring, and Sept. 28 in LaBelle.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture had repeatedly said the citrus program would begin no later than July 16. But state Emergency Management Director Wes Maul said his agency has “significantly expedited this process” as the goal is to “get this money into the hands of the many citrus farmers who suffered following Hurricane Irma’s devastating impacts.”

“They are critical to the recovery of Florida’s iconic industry, and we will continue to work with our state and federal partners to make this happen as quickly as possible,” Maul said in a statement released by his agency.

About $129 million of the block-grant money is directed toward new trees, grove rehabilitation and irrigation-system repairs and replacements.

Another $182 million is directed toward future economic losses for growers who lost at least 40 percent of their crop production from Irma.

An estimated $29 million, subject to availability, will go to help growers meet crop-insurance purchase requirements for the 2022 and 2023 seasons.

The first crop estimate for the 2018-2019 season will be made by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in just under a month.

In the 2017-2018 growing season, which ended in July, the state produced 34.7 percent fewer oranges and half the number of grapefruits compared to a year earlier.

Growers have battled for years with deadly citrus greening disease. But just as they thought they were making headway against the disease, the industry got smashed by the hurricane.

For the season, growers saw overall production at its lowest — 49.58 million 90-pound boxes, the industry standard — since the 1941-1942 growing season.

Grapefruit production, 3.88 million boxes, hit its lowest output since 1920.

The News Service of Florida provides journalists, lobbyists, government officials and other civic leaders with comprehensive, objective information about the activities of state government year-round.

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