Disaster Relief: Ways Florida Growers Can Find Farm Aid

Disaster Relief: Ways Florida Growers Can Find Farm Aid

Citrus stew courtesy of Irma

Citrus stew in the wake of Hurricane Irma. Photo by Monica Ozores-Hampton

When Hurricane Irma raked its way across Florida, it was clear the state’s agricultural industry would be hurt and need help. The question was just how much?

While that is still being sorted out, a price tag on the storm has been applied. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services released a preliminary estimate that the storm resulted in crop losses of $2.5 billion. The state’s already struggling citrus industry took a particularly hard hit with estimated crop losses at $761 million.

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As the state’s growers continue to assess damage and get back on their feet, calls for assistance have been loud. In early October, Gov. Rick Scott announced a Citrus Emergency Loan Program valued at $25 million to help growers recover after the storm. The program will provide growers with interest-free loans managed by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

“I am committed to working with our state and federal partners to help Florida’s citrus industry and the nearly 76,000 jobs it supports,” Scott said in a statement. “The Florida Citrus Emergency Loan Program will be a valuable resource for the affected business owners.”

The sign-up period for the loan program runs until Nov. 30. Growers can apply for loans up to $150,000 in terms for up to one year. For more information, visit FloridaDisasterLoan.org.

Conflicting Counts

As growers and industry leaders prepared to make the ask for federal relief funds, USDA’s initial citrus forecast in October raised eyebrows. Coming in at 54 million boxes for all oranges, the estimate was much higher than expected. Florida Citrus Mutual’s own survey — which represented 86% of the state’s acreage — estimated a crop of only 31 million boxes.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said of the estimate: “Hurricane Irma’s path could not have been more lethal to Florida citrus. I am concerned that [USDA’s] forecast does not accurately estimate the damages to our industry, given that groves are still under water and fruit is still dropping from trees. It’s important to recognize that the damage to Florida citrus is still unfolding, and will continue to for some time.

“One thing is clear, Florida’s growers need support and they need it fast. I will continue to work with leaders in Washington to get Florida’s growers the support and relief they need to rebuild as quickly as possible. There is no group of people more stubborn or more resilient than Florida’s growers, and we will get through this together.”

Specialty crop growers are encouraged to document all losses due to Irma even delayed responses like continued citrus fruit drop after the storm. Nothing is too small to take an accounting of. This information can be useful for future aid efforts.

Calls for Relief

Hurricane Irma was not the only storms of the season. Hurricane Harvey and Maria took their tolls as well. In mid-October, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a $36.5 billion disaster relief package. However (as of this posting), there was not a USDA-specific relief fund specific to Florida agriculture included. Before the Senate took up the measure, there was a call to action from Florida Farm Bureau and Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association for growers and the industry to lobby for specific language in the bill to assist Florida agriculture.

Growers interested in learning about USDA disaster assistance should contact their local Farm Service Agency office. In addition, the USDA Disaster Assistance Fact Sheet is a helpful resource.

Florida Ag Coalition Offers Disaster Recommendations

Hurricane Irma’s impacts on Florida were significant and widely documented. It will be a major financial strain on growers to rebuild. In that light, the coalition has made the following recommendations to help growers rebuild.

  • Allow a sales tax exemption for materials used to repair or replace damaged fences or structures.
  • Provide tax exemption for fuel used in agricultural production or transportation during an emergency declaration as well as a recovery period.
  • Reduction in Tangible Personal Property Tax for equipment affected by the disaster. Loan programs can be very beneficial as farms struggle with cash flow after a disaster.
  • Governor Rick Scott has announced a short term loan program for citrus growers. A program like this also would be helpful to other sectors as well.
  • 570.82, Agricultural Economic Development Program Disaster Loans: This program currently exists in statute. It provides for loans to farms less than 300 acres and currently has no funding. This program, or one like it, could be beneficial if it were funded and had an expanded eligibility.