SEBRING - Local citrus growers are applauding a U.S. House-Senate Farm Bill agreement that guarantees $125 million for citrus disease research over five years, as greening continues to afflict groves that many say threatens the industry's very survival.
The U.S. House and Senate still need to approve the bill, which is scheduled to go on the House floor today.
U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney called the proposed funding "a huge victory, not just for the growers in my district, but for our entire state and everyone in this country who drinks orange juice."
The state's citrus industry reportedly has an annual $9 billion economic impact and creates 76,000 jobs.
"We've been working for the last three years to get this program included in the Farm Bill, and I couldn't be happier that we were able to secure it in the final agreement reached today," Rooney said in a news release Monday. "This new initiative will help save Florida's citrus industry, protect Florida jobs, and ensure that all Americans continue to enjoy a safe, affordable and abundant food supply."
Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson said: "If we don't stop this now, we'll end up paying five bucks for an orange - and it'll be one imported from someplace else."
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam described greening as an "existential threat" to the state's citrus industry.
"...we need all the help we can get to save our state's signature crop," he added.
The proposed legislation creates a new research and extension grant program, the Citrus Disease Research and Extension Initiative.
The bill also authorizes $125 million more in discretionary money over the next five years.
Local grower John Barben warmly welcomed the news and hoped Congress would approve it.
"It's going to be huge," he said. "Growers are spending a lot out of their pocket fighting it. Greening is devastating Highlands County and every county with citrus in it."
Citrus growers pay tax on each box of citrus that goes through commercial channels, also called the box tax.
Part of the box tax money has been going to fund greening research when it could be used instead to market orange juice during a time when OJ consumption is falling, Barben explained.
According to the Department of Agriculture, citrus greening - formally known as Huanglongbing, or HLB - cost Florida more than $4.5 billion in lost citrus production and more than 8,200 in lost jobs from the 2006-07 to 2010-11 production seasons.
A gnat-sized insect - the Asian citrus psyllid - causes greening, which was first detected in Florida in 2005.
The bacterial disease, which slowly starves a tree of nutrition by plugging up its inside, causes trees to produce green, misshapen and bitter-tasting fruit that can't be used commercially. There is no known cure.
Rep. Ben Albritton, whose family owns and manages groves, said he was "thrilled" with the news of the potential federal funding.
Since greening was first detected in 2005, the devastation it has caused has been "rapidly increasing," he said.
The industry has gotten to a point where "infrastructure challenges" could take place, he said, as citrus production progressively decreases, causing domino effects like closure of juice processing plants.
Albritton, who used to chair the Florida Citrus Commission, talked about some of the research that has taken place to combat greening.
He said growers have "learned a lot" how to control the citrus psyllid and nutrition therapies to prop up greening-infected trees.
Researchers also have helped sequence the DNA of the most prevalent form of the disease in Florida and the DNA of a similar strain of the disease discovered in Brazil, with hopes of isolating what causes greening by comparing the two, according to a University of Florida news release.
In the long run, the federal funds could help the industry not just fight greening but whatever else comes along, Albritton said.
"We are not sure what the next big change is going to be," he added. "The research can help us solve problems. It can help us learn more about our product and become more efficient producers."