TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – An increase in imported orange juice is anticipated by the Florida Citrus Commission to offset a decline in tax revenue from the state's hurricane-battered growers, who await congressional action on disaster relief.
The commission -- during a brief conference call Wednesday -- agreed to shift $556,147 from reserves to help cover the Department of Citrus' budget for the current fiscal year, with the transfer leaving a $682 negative balance. Taxes on citrus pay for the department's operations.
Christine Marion, commission secretary, said continued demand by Floridians for orange juice is expected to increase the need for citrus to be imported, which -- because it is taxed like citrus grown in the state -- should offset the negative balance.
Unlike in past years, imported citrus now accounts for more than half -- currently topping 55 percent -- of the citrus taxed by the state.
Meanwhile, Florida agriculture leaders, including Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Citrus Commission Chairman G. Ellis Hunt, rushed to Washington, D.C. as some kinks emerged in a reported deal announced Tuesday to include $2.6 million for crop losses -- with an emphasis on citrus -- in an expanded $81 billion disaster-relief bill.
“It's a roller coaster up here,” Hunt said Wednesday morning. “We've had some good news yesterday, and then we a little jumped the tracks, maybe, at the moment. … There's quite a team assembled and we're all working extremely hard and trying to kind of push this thing over the finish line.”
The overall relief package -- nearly double the White House's requested $44 billion proposal -- has been attached to a short-term “continuing resolution” needed to keep the federal government open through January 19.
The resolution was initially expected to go before the U.S. House on Tuesday, but is now expected to come up for a vote later this week. The measure would then go before the Senate.
Issues have emerged regarding reauthorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in the package, while Texas officials are pushing to get more money for its post-Hurricane Harvey recovery.
The plan is the third disaster-relief package this year in response to hurricanes in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico and wildfires in California. The biggest parts are $27.6 billion that would go to replenish the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster-relief account and $27.8 billion for community development block grants that could be used toward flood prevention and infrastructure repairs.
Gov. Rick Scott released a statement Wednesday saying disaster relief is critical for the agriculture industry, as well as local school districts educating students who came to Florida from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. He also said the package needs to be clear that money would go to infrastructure projects such as repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee.
“As Hurricane Irma was bearing down on our state, we were forced to evacuate communities surrounding the lake due to safety concerns identified by the Army Corps of Engineers,” Scott wrote. “The lake reached dangerous levels, and Florida cannot go through another hurricane season without exploring all avenues of federal funding to fix the dike.”
For Florida's citrus growers, on pace for the lowest harvest since the 1944-1945 growing season, the impact of Hurricane Irma in September came after they have struggled for a decade against citrus greening disease.
Putnam's department estimated in October that the state's agriculture industry suffered a $2.5 billion hit from Irma, with the citrus industry losses at $761 million. The citrus figure is expected to top $1 billion as damages continue to be reported and some growers in the southwestern part of the state face 70 percent to 90 percent losses.
Putnam, in seeking citrus-industry aid in the disaster relief package, has warned that imports could take hold in greater numbers as the state's signature crop continues to struggle while beverage companies seek alternative sources of citrus.
“You have the major brands, Coke, Pepsi, Florida's Natural, who are trying to meet the needs of consumers,” Putnam said last week. “And in many cases, it's going to result in additional imports from Brazil, which also undermines Florida citrus and its market share.”
The Citrus Commission, while determining revenue for the Department of Citrus' $17.8 million budget, had previously projected that orange juice imports -- primarily from Brazil and Mexico -- would surpass, in terms of volume, the amount of oranges grown this season.
A so-called “box” tax on growers, which provides revenue for the Department of Citrus, was set in October with a projection of 124.34 million 90-pound boxes being filled with oranges, grapefruit and specialty fruits by Florida growers and through imports.
The agency charges growers 7 cents on each box of processed oranges, grapefruit and specialty fruits.
In the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture forecast, Florida growers were projected during the current growing season to fill about 51.5 million boxes, of which 46 million were expected to contain processed oranges.
When setting its budget for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, the Department of Citrus projected -- based upon June figures -- that imports would account for 37.5 million boxes, almost all oranges.
Since then the import projection has already been raised to 63.9 million boxes.
Marisa Zansler, director of the agency's Economic and Market Research Department, has indicated the imports will likely continue to grow to reach the budget projections.
The agency is awaiting the January crop estimate for Florida and revised data from Mexico and Brazil to determine if a revision is needed.