In Florida, a revolt against the citrus police
One of the great benefits of living in south Florida is the ability to enjoy fresh-picked grapefruit and oranges from a backyard tree for breakfast every morning.Skip to next paragraph
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But this luxury may soon be a relic of the past if Florida courts uphold an aggressive effort by state agriculture officials to control an outbreak of citrus canker disease by destroying backyard citrus trees.
The legal battle pits homeowners seeking to protect their much-beloved source of fresh fruit and shade against state officials seeking to protect Florida's $9 billion citrus industry second only to tourism.
Both sides are headed for a showdown at the state's highest court, which will determine the extent to which Floridians have a constitutional right to grow citrus in their own backyards.
More than 603,000 backyard citrus trees have already been destroyed, and residents are complaining about what they say are Gestapo-like tactics employed by chainsaw-wielding work crews sometimes escorted onto private property by sheriff's deputies. Some Floridians have taken to calling them "fruit Nazis."
"They came with two sheriff's deputies. They said if you don't step aside we will handcuff you and take you to jail," says John Haire, of Fort Lauderdale, one of several residents challenging the eradication program in court.
The stakes aren't just legal and economic. The issue could complicate Governor Jeb Bush's reelection bid later this year, according to some analysts. Mr. Bush has been an outspoken supporter of the program.
"There are 250,000 people affected by this. Surely 10 percent of them are really mad, so we are talking about 25,000 people who probably aren't going to vote for Jeb Bush," says John Haire.
At issue is a Florida Department of Agriculture effort to eradicate the disease before it spreads to the state's major groves in central Florida.The bacteria has already been detected in 12 counties. Citrus industry officials warn that if Florida growers lose the ability to certify their product as canker-free, Florida citrus export markets may disappear, and the US will lose the power to bar imports of citrus from canker-infested countries.
"We estimate the annual impact of living with canker at $343 million a year," says Ken Keck of Florida Citrus Mutual, the state's largest citrus growers' association. Canker causes brown and yellow blotches on citrus leaves and fruit rind, according to experts. It is spread primarily by wind-driven rain. It poses no threat to human health, nor does it damage the taste or quality of the fruit - other than its outward appearance, these experts say.
Industry officials stress that canker can cause fruit to fall from trees prematurely and that eventually it can cause a tree to stop producing fruit.
Critics of the state's eradication program dispute this. They say the canker threat has been hyped by state and industry officials who are using an unfounded fear of canker to boost the profitability of Florida citrus.