TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — The omnibus bill passed Friday in U.S. Congress amounted to $1.7 trillion for the 2023 federal budget through September. However, while the bill included billions of dollars for disaster relief, representatives of Florida’s hard-hit citrus industry say they were left out of the assistance.
Reports produced by the Florida Department of Agriculture after Hurricane Ian estimated the citrus industry alone faced losses between $417 million to $675.5 million after the hurricane. The state agriculture industry overall was impacted by as much as $1.8 billion, potentially.
Florida’s federal representatives said the impact of the storm had affected more than 375,000 acres of Florida citrus when it made landfall in October, hitting 90% of all citrus production in the state. Then Hurricane Nicole hit weeks later.
“With this bill, Congress appropriated $40 billion dedicated to disaster relief and most of it will fail to reach those who need it most. Unfortunately, the bill was written in a backroom by Congressional Leadership and dropped in the dark of night three days before the deadline,” Florida Citrus Mutual CEO Matt Joyner said. “It leaves Florida citrus growers on the outside looking in when it comes to disaster relief in 2022.”
Florida Citrus Mutual said the supplemental funding in the omnibus bill will cover rebuild needs for the hurricanes in 2022, but “will remain out of reach for many in the citrus industry who need it most.”
In particular, compared to previous legislation, the organization said block grant programs to help support specialty crops were left out of the 2023 budget, leaving the citrus industry out of relief efforts.
The lack of aid alleged by the trade organization comes as Florida faces its lowest citrus crop in nearly a century. Even before Hurricanes Ian and Nicole, the Florida citrus forecast from the U.S. Department of Agriculture was at its lowest since the 1940s.
After Ian hit, the storm’s impact downgraded the forecast to its lowest since 1935, placing Florida’s citrus production 56% lower than in 2021. The forecast orange production alone was 29% lower in December than what was expected in October.
Additional documentation published by the White House detailed provisions for $37.3 billion to be made available for disaster recovery and other unmet needs after Hurricane Ian in 2022 and Hurricane Fiona from 2021, as well as wildfires that have raged across the U.S.
Of the nearly $40 billion, $29.6 billion is set aside specifically for recovery from the two hurricanes. $2.1 billion is provided for agricultural needs, such as damage to crops and payment for crop insurance and other hurricane-related response and private forestland recovery, while an additional $800 million was provided for damages due to droughts across the U.S. and similar payments for disaster response and crop insurance.
Florida Citrus Mutual wasn’t alone in its criticism of the legislation. The Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association also took issue with the bill, as reported by AgNet Media. The labor organization expressed its disappointment that the Affordable and Secure Food Act of 2022 was not included in the final spending package.
“We were hopeful to see action on ag labor reform this Congress and are disappointed the Affordable and Secure Food Act of 2022 did not make it into the omnibus spending package,” FFVA said. “The reality is agriculture is dealing with a domestic workforce crisis. Without a workforce, farmers can’t continue to farm. That’s why FFVA has long supported a solution that will provide American farmers with a legal, stable workforce to plant and harvest crops.”
FFVA is concerned that the lack of inclusion means reforms to the federal H-2A program, which provides temporary work visas for agricultural workers, won’t happen, putting increasing adverse effect wage rates into play and impacting Florida and Georgia farmers.