In the spring last season, there was an optimistic mood among the state’s citrus growers. Early predictions were that growers could expect an improved yield over the previous season, which had not been seen in a long time due to citrus greening.
Then Hurricane Irma came in September and hopes for a better season washed away with it. The largest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic Basin delivered an especially large blow to citrus groves as it traveled up the middle of the peninsula. Every grove felt impacts from the storm. Some places that felt the worst of the hurricane reported crop losses of nearly 100%, and it was common to hear damage reports of 40% to 50%.
The decade-long battle with greening had pushed many growers to the edge and, for some, Irma represented the final shove. In the storm’s aftermath, it was immediately clear that growers would need federal help to recover lost revenues and to hang on for another season.
The 2018 Florida Grower Citrus Achievement Award winner, U.S. Congressman Tom Rooney, didn’t take long to assess damage and help lead the charge to secure a relief package for the state’s citrus growers so damaged by the storm.
The day after the storm, Rooney was on the phone with growers and citrus industry representatives, asking how bad it was and how he could help. Although he does not come from a farming background, Rooney became a close ally to the agricultural community in his 10 years of service in Congress.
With his retirement announced, the work he did in Congress to help secure $340 million specifically for Florida citrus could be his biggest and most important final act on behalf of growers. The funds come as part of a larger package known as the 2017 Wildfires and Hurricanes Indemnity Program (WHIP), which dedicates $2.36 billion in relief funds for hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, and the wildfires that ravage farmland last year.
“My whole tenure in Congress has been book-ended by citrus greening, trying to help growers beat it, and capped off with Hurricane Irma to ensure growers have a fighting chance to get back in the game and not just be left completely on their own,” Rooney says.
Taking Care of My Growers
Rooney got the bug for politics right out of college, serving as an aide for Sen. Connie Mack of Florida in the early 1990s. In the job, he got a sense for public policy and how to serve constituents.
“Sen. Mack was, and is, a really solid leader, and working for him really planted a seed in me that a lot goes on in this town, and you can make a difference,” he says. “I thought it might be cool someday to come back to Washington as an elected official.”
After serving in the Army, the opportunity to represent the 17th District of Florida presented itself in 2007 when his former Congressman resigned and there was an election to fill the seat. Rooney ran and won in 2008.
The district covers one of the largest citrus-growing regions in the state. Going into office, Rooney had no background in agriculture, but he says his grower constituents were quick to educate him and have always had his back while he served in office.
“Citrus has been the driving force during my time in Congress,” he says. “Growers were extremely helpful to me and first recommended I get on the House Agriculture Committee, which I did. They were very patient, educating me on what is important to them and why in Washington, D.C. I will be forever grateful to the agriculture community in my district for not turning a blind eye to me when I got elected — some East Coast guy with no farming background. They were so thoughtful to take me under their wing and basically teach me how to be their congressman.”
Rooney’s relationship with citrus growers has yielded benefits to the industry throughout his decade in office. He came into office right as citrus greening was taking hold. His service on the Agriculture Committee, and later on the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, was critical in the fight to secure funding for research and other programs to fight the disease.
“Early on, I was baptized by citrus greening,” he says. “If I can say I did one thing in Congress and that was to help preserve our ability to grow orange juice in Florida, that was my driving force over the past 10 years.”
Along Came Irma
Hopes for a better growing season were dashed on Sept. 10 when Hurricane Irma hit Florida with devastating effect, especially on citrus.
Right away, Rooney and other elected officials began down the long road of securing a relief package for the state’s citrus growers. He says one of his first calls was to Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam to seek guidance.
“Adam is one of the most cerebral guys I have ever met, and he was in Congress in 2004 when the hurricanes hit,” Rooney says. “We drew from his experience on how relief payments were worked out and delivered back then.”
He said other stakeholders in the industry like Florida Citrus Mutual’s Mike Sparks and leaders from the other regional citrus associations played a key role in unifying the industry to speak with one voice. And, he says growers traveling to Washington to rally for funding was critical.
“When I am in a committee meetings with somebody like Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, it means something to have growers in that room,” he says. “My growers didn’t sit back. They came to Washington to get in people’s faces — in a respectful way — to communicate the dire situation they were in and what they needed. They also met with Secretary Perdue when we had him down to tour damaged groves after the storm. All of this made a difference.”
After a few political delays, Rooney and the rest of the Florida elected delegation finally got legislation through in February. The USDA WHIP package was announced in May, with sign-ups starting in July.
“It was frustrating to see it keep getting pushed back from what we originally hoped would be in December,” he says. “It is called disaster relief for a reason. These people are in dire straits and need help now. This is why we live in the greatest country on Earth, because when something like Irma comes along, we take care of the people impacted to help make them whole again.”
To get the package done didn’t come without its battles, with some of the hardest fights within his own Republican party. Rooney says he cashed in all of his political capital built in his tenure to help build a bipartisan push to get the package supported, passed, and signed into law by the president.
Stop and Smell the Blossoms
With the relief package secured, Rooney announced plans to retire after serving out his current term. He says he is not sure yet what his future holds, but most immediately it is to spend time with family and watch his kids play sports.
“When I go home to my district and it is freezing up in Washington, it is nice to roll down the windows and smell the orange blossoms,” he says. “It is part of who we are in Florida. We have oranges on our license plates. I hope my time in Washington helped preserve the industry and allow growers to hang in there to fight for another day.”Past Achievement Award Winners Sound Off
Previous Florida Grower Citrus Achievement Award winners gave a hardy congratulations to the 2018 winner Congressman Tom Rooney. Here’s what two (Mike Sparks and Dan Richey of Riverfront Packing Corp.) had to say about the selection.
Richey: “It is clear that we would not have had a relief package for the damage from the hurricane if not for Tom’s efforts. He has forged an obvious good relationship with Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Purdue, convincing him of the importance to visit Florida after the hurricane to see first hand the damage done. Tom is a coalition builder. He sees the big picture and has the respect on both sides of the aisle. He will be missed by all as he departs Congress, but we completely understand his commitment to his family must come first.”
Sparks: “Congressman Tom Rooney is an excellent selection for this year’s award, not only for his work on hurricane relief, but also for his 10 years of service on the Agriculture Committee and Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee. He was able to work with both sides of the political aisles to get critical funding for research to fight against citrus greening.
“Tom was dedicated to getting our growers relief from day one after Hurricane Irma to the final day in February when the president signed legislation that included our relief package.”
The Citrus Achievement Award will be presented to Rooney during the 2018 Florida Citrus Industry Annual Conference banquet in Bonita Springs, June 14.
Word From The Sponsor
Arysta LifeScience and MICROMITE Insect Growth Regulator are proud to recognize Rep. Tom Rooney of Florida’s 17th Congressional District as the recipient of the 2018 Florida Grower Citrus Achievement Award. Rep. Rooney was chosen as this year’s winner for being a true defender of agriculture during his 10-year term in Congress. Rep. Rooney helped lead the fight to secure federal relief funds for citrus growers impacted by Hurricane Irma. Serving on the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, he fought hard to make sure funds were secured specifically for citrus growers, and the USDA recently announced an allocation of $340 million to this effort. Please join us in congratulating Rep. Tom Rooney on a job well done. We can think of no one more deserving of this honor.