Struggling citrus growers look for billions in federal aid

- Ellis Hunt, Jr. walks through the orange grove his family has owned for generations and sees the blackened crop on the ground, ruined by Hurricane Irma.

"It has been like living with cancer," he said.

He is a third-generation citrus grower in Lake Wales. At one time, they were selling 2 million boxes a year to juice makers like Florida's Natural. Today, they're selling less than half.

"It has been a slow, painful death as everybody watches their grow production continue to decline."

Statewide, growers had expected to sell 75 million boxes, but Irma blew more than half to the ground. Now, they'll only sell about 45 million boxes and take almost a billion dollars in losses. 

Add years of citrus greening on top of that.

"A lot of growers don't have any more money," he said. "They pulled all their savings out."

After bipartisan lobbying by Sens. Bill Nelson (D) and Marco Rubio (R), Congress passed a $2.3-billion aid package. At stake are 45,000 jobs, critical to places like Fort Meade, Frostproof and Wimauma.  

In a good year, his farm employs 250.  This year, it was less than half.

"This is going to give people the ability that were down to the last straw to raise another crop," said Hunt.

He says the aid money will buy fertilizer, sprays and water to make it to next season, when hopefully the oranges will be just a bit brighter, than this.

"I don't think anybody would realize the significance if we were to lose agriculture and specifically the citrus industry."

Hunt says that he and other growers expect to find out how much they will be granted over the next few weeks.

Between citrus greening and the hurricanes, just year over year the crop is down by a third, taking $760 million with it.

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