Congressman Thomas J. Rooney

Representing the 17th District of Florida

Rooney: Standing up for Florida's Citrus

Dec 15, 2015
Op-Ed

By Tom Rooney

You will be hard-pressed to find an American breakfast menu without orange juice on it. On the menus of establishments ranging from small family-owned diners to upscale room service at fancy hotels, orange juice is a staple item that has squeezed its way into American mornings for decades.

As a representative from Florida’s 17th Congressional District, I’m proud to say that most of our nation’s orange juice supply is grown in my own backyard.

Florida is the largest producer of oranges in the United States, accounting for about 70 percent of the nation’s total production. The state of Florida produces more oranges than any other region of the world, with the exception of Brazil.

There are more than 8,000 citrus growers cultivating more than 500,000 acres of Florida’s land solely devoted to citrus. The industry also supports more than 75,000 jobs that are either directly or indirectly related to citrus. Whether in the groves or on the breakfast table, the citrus industry affects the lives of nearly every Floridian across the state.

Unfortunately, for over a decade, America’s citrus industry has been endangered. We are now at the cusp of seeing it disappear entirely unless serious measures are taken to ensure its survival.

Huanglongbing (HLB), commonly referred to as citrus greening disease, is a bacterial plant disease that Florida has been battling for many years. In recent years, HLB has spread to Texas and parts of California, which are the other significant citrus producing states in the country. HLB is fatal for citrus trees, destroying their production, appearance and economic value.

Together, the citrus industries of Florida, Texas and California comprise over $11 billion in economic activity annually. However, unless a cure for HLB is found in the near future, this impressive economic footprint is increasingly at risk. The United States cannot afford to lose $11 billion in economic activity, nor can it afford to lose the hundreds of thousands of jobs supported by the citrus industry.

Since I was elected to Congress in 2008, my mission has been to do everything I possibly can to help Florida’s citrus growers combat greening disease, and ultimately find a cure.

I am one of the only members of Florida’s congressional delegation to sit on the prestigious House Appropriations Committee, and am the sole Florida member on the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee. In that capacity, I worked to include specific directives and funding supporting citrus disease research in our 2016 funding bill. Because of the existential threat it poses to Florida’s citrus industry, I was able to ensure that an additional $2 million in funding was incorporated into the final House bill to sustain the Huanglongbing Multiagency Coordination Group’s (HLB-MAC) recent research gains in early detection, greening management strategies, and therapies to treat infected trees.

Unfortunately, the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee did not include any funding for this program in their 2016 funding bill.

Therefore, I wrote a letter, with signatures from 22 of my House colleagues, to the chairman and chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee urging their support of funding for the HLB-MAC. Soon, the House and the Senate will be finalizing their appropriations bills for 2016. We requested that, at a minimum, Senate Appropriations Committee leaders support including the House-recommended funding level of $2 million for the HLB-MAC in any final, compromise appropriations bill.

It is my sincere hope that the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee will include the funding necessary to help keep the citrus industry alive.

We need to invest the necessary funds to finding a cure for HLB before the American citrus industry becomes a thing of the past. Florida orange juice has been around long before any of us ever were, and the work we do today will ensure that Florida orange juice will be around long after we are all gone.

U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Okeechobee, represents Florida's 17th Congressional District, which includes Fort Meade, Frostproof, Lake Wales and other parts of southern Polk County.