Florida citrus crop estimate shrinks again post-Irma

Florida citrus groves were severely damaged by Hurricane Irma. Provided.

Hurricane Irma continues to haunt Florida farmers as the U.S. Department of Agriculture Tuesday once again decreased its monthly estimate of the state’s 2017-2018 citrus crop.

The USDA now says Florida will produce 46 million boxes of oranges, down 4 million boxes from November and 8 million boxes from October. The USDA makes its first estimate in October of each year and revises it monthly until the end of the season in July.  For more information go to https://www.nass.usda.gov/Statistics_by_State/Florida/Publications/Citrus/

   “This is exactly what we thought would happen as the true damage begins to rear its ugly head in the groves across Florida,” said Michael W. Sparks, executive VP/CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual, the state’s largest grower organization. “Unfortunately the situation is going to get worse before it gets better; we think the actual size of the 2017-2018 crop will not be known until the season is over and all the fruit is picked.”

“Clearly, this lower estimate provides stark evidence that Congress needs to pass a citrus relief package so we can start to rebuild and put the industry on a path to sustainability while saving the communities that rely on citrus,” Sparks said.

On September 10  Hurricane Irma moved through the center of the state pounding Florida’s major citrus producing regions with up to 110 mph winds and 15 inches of rain. The hurricane blew fruit off the tree and caused widespread tree damage. A FCM survey of growers conducted post Irma pegged total fruit loss at almost 60 percent with some reports of 100 percent fruit loss in the Southwest part of the state.

Tuesday’s forecast represents a decline of more than 80 percent since the peak of citrus production at 244 million boxes during the 1997-98 season.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said Tuesday, “While much of the state has recovered and moved on from Hurricane Irma, Florida’s citrus growers continue to grapple with the unprecedented damage, which is still unfolding in many groves. Florida’s growers need support and they need it as quickly as possible. I will continue to work with Governor Scott and leaders in Washington to get Florida’s growers the support and relief they need to rebuild.”

After Irma, Putnam announced that Florida citrus sustained more than $760 million in damages.

For more information about the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, visit FreshFromFlorida.com.

 

 

Worried about credit/debit card skimmers? Here’s what to do.

Skimmers such as this one found at a Florida gas station are used to steal credit and debit card info.

As motorists fill up their vehicles’ tanks for Memorial Day travel, they’re reminded that skimmers could be lurking at the pump.

So far this year, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has found and removed 185 skimmers. Thieves place the  devices  on gas pumps to steal consumers’ debit and credit card information.

 The number of consumers victimized by each skimmer is estimated to be about 100 per device, with an average of $1,000 stolen from each victim, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said Friday.

Travelers can take the following steps to avoid skimmers at gas stations:

  • Pay in cash inside the store to ensure credit card information stays safe.
  • Check to make sure the gas pump dispenser cabinet is closed and has not been tampered with.
  • Use a gas pump closer to the front of the store. Thieves often place skimmers at the gas pumps farther away from the store.
  • Use a credit card instead of a debit card. Credit cards have better fraud protection, and the money is not deducted immediately from an account.
  • If using a debit card at the pump, choose to run it as a credit card instead of putting a PIN number in. That way, the PIN number is safe.
  • Monitor bank accounts regularly to spot any unauthorized charges.
  • Consumers who suspect their credit card number has been compromised should report it immediately to authorities and their credit card company.

Putnam worked with the Florida Legislature last year to change Florida law to better protect consumers from identity theft at gas station pumps by:

  • Requiring self-service fuel dispensers to use certain security measures to prevent theft of consumer financial information;
  • Increasing enforcement authority against those who possess or traffic fraudulent credit cards;
  • Reclassifying the crime of unlawful conveyance of fuel, which increases the maximum sentence; and
  • Increasing the offense level of the crime, which affects sentencing guidelines.

Consumers who suspect that a gas pump has been tampered with should contact the gas station manager, local law enforcement or the department’s consumer protection and information hotline at 1-800-HELP-FLA (435-7352) or, for Spanish speakers, 1-800-FL-AYUDA (352-9832).

The department regularly inspects gas stations and analyzes samples of petroleum products to ensure consumers are being offered quality products at a fair measure. For more information, visit FreshFromFlorida.com.

 

 

 

Putnam to Commerce Sec. Ross: You live in Palm Beach, investigate Mexico!

Piles of discarded radishes line a field at Roth Farms in Belle Glade, Florida on January 11, 2017. Prices were low due to imports from Mexico, and it wasn’t worth harvesting the radishes. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

U.S. Department of Commerce Sec. Wilbur Ross is a Palm Beach County resident and Wednesday Florida Agriculture Commissioner reminded him of that as he urged Ross to initiate an investigation into Mexico’s unfair trade practices.

The billionaire investor and his wife Hilary Geary Ross own a house in Palm Beach.

Putnam sent a letter to  Ross emphasizing the need for fair trade, as Mexican imports have negatively affected Florida agriculture.

“As a resident of Palm Beach County, one of the most fertile growing regions in the State of Florida, you are keenly aware of the tremendous diversity of agricultural commodities produced by Florida’s farmers and ranchers,” Putnam wrote.

Palm Beach County’s winter vegetable season coincides with Mexico’s, and the cheap imports have adversely impacted Florida growers.

The Palm Beach Post covered the problem in January.

Florida agriculture has an economic impact of more than $120 billion a year and provides the impetus for more than 2 million jobs, Putnam said.

“I believe that Florida produces the highest quality agricultural commodities in the world and can successfully compete in a global market on a level playing field. Unfortunately, the current trade environment created under NAFTA is anything but a fair and level playing field for Florida’s producers,” Putnam stated.

The letter can be found here.

Florida’s orange crop estimate sinks lower as tree-killing disease spreads

Greening disease causes fruit to become lopsided and taste bitter.
Greening disease causes fruit to become lopsided and taste bitter.

Florida’s signature crop continues to be hammered by greening disease, and Thursday the U.S. Department of Agriculture reduced its orange crop forecast for the 2016-17 season.

The Florida all orange forecast, at 71 million  90-pound boxes  is down 1 million boxes from last month’s estimate of 72 million,  and down 13 percent from last season’s final utilization of 81.6 million boxes.

The grapefruit crop estimate dropped to 9 million boxes from 9.3 million boxes in December. Florida produced 10.8 million boxes of grapefruit in the 2015-16 season.

Greening is a bacterial disease spread by the tiny Asian citrus psyllid. It was first confirmed in August 2005 in Miami-Dade County. By that October, it was found in Palm Beach, Broward and Hendry, and since then has spread throughout Florida and to other states such as Texas and California.

Florida growers produced a peak of 244 million boxes of oranges in the 1997-98 season.

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam said Thursday, “Because of citrus greening, production of our state’s signature crop is down 70 percent from 20 years ago. The future of Florida citrus, and the tens of thousands of jobs it supports, depends on a long-term solution in the fight against greening. Our brightest minds are working to find a solution, but until then, we must support our growers and provide them every tool available to combat this devastating disease.”

Putnam has requested more than $17 million in state funding to continue critical research and support Florida’s citrus industry.

Still have a citrus tree? Here are some greening symptoms:

•Leaf yellowing or blotchy mottling of leaves

•Lopsided and bitter fruit

•Fruit that remains green even when ripe

•Twig dieback and stunted sparsely foliated trees that may bloom off season.

 

 

Screwworm that can infect humans, livestock, pets, found in Key deer

The Latin name for the New World Screwworm, Cochliomyia hominivorax is loosely translated as "eater of man."
The Latin name for the New World Screwworm, Cochliomyia hominivorax is loosely translated as “eater of man.”

New World screwworm, a devastating disease that can  infect livestock, wildlife, pets and  humans,  has been confirmed in Key deer from a wildlife refuge in Big Pine Key, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said Monday.

It’s the first infestation in the U.S. in 30 years, and the first in more than five decades in Florida. Left untreated, the disease can be fatal.

In response to this infestation, Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam has declared an agricultural state of emergency in Monroe County. It  can be accessed here.

More information on the screwworm is available at FreshFromFlorida.com.

“The screwworm is a potentially devastating animal disease that sends shivers down every rancher’s spine. It’s been more than five decades since the screwworm last infested Florida, and I’ve grown up hearing the horror stories from the last occurrence,” Putnam said.

“This foreign animal disease poses a grave threat to wildlife, livestock and domestic pets in Florida. Though rare, it can even infect humans. We’ve eradicated this from Florida before, and we’ll do it again. We will work with our partners on the federal, state and local level to protect our residents, animals and wildlife by eliminating the screwworm from Florida,” Putnam said. “The public’s assistance is crucial to the success of this eradication program.”

In addition to the samples from three Key deer that were confirmed positive for screwworm, there are other Key deer from the same refuge and a few pets in the local area that exhibited signs of screwworm over the past two months, though no larvae were collected and tested in those cases. All of the potentially affected animals are from the same area of Big Pine Key and No Name Key. There have been no human or livestock cases, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services said.

Animal health and wildlife officials at the state and federal levels are working jointly to address these findings.  Response efforts will include fly trapping to determine the extent of the infestation, release of sterile flies to eliminate the screwworm fly population and disease surveillance to look for additional cases in animals.  The initial goal will be to keep the infestation from spreading to new areas while eradicating the New World screwworm flies from the affected Keys.

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has established an Animal Health Check Zone from mile marker 91 south. Animals traveling north will be given health checks at an interdiction station located at mile marker 106 to ensure that they do not have screwworm. This checkpoint will ensure that the screwworm does not travel north and infest other areas of Florida.

Residents who have warm-blooded animals (pets, livestock, etc.) should watch their animals carefully and report any potential cases to 1-800-HELP-FLA (1-800-435-7352) or non-Florida residents should call (850) 410-3800.  Visitors to the area should ensure any pets that are with them are also checked, in order to prevent the spread of this infestation.

New World screwworms are fly larvae (maggots) that can infest livestock and other warm-blooded animals, including people. They most often enter an animal through an open wound and feed on the animal’s living flesh.  While they can fly much farther under ideal conditions, adult flies generally do not travel more than a couple of miles if there are suitable host animals in the area. New World screwworm is more likely to spread long distances when infested animals move to new areas and carry the pest there.

 

In the 1950s, USDA developed a new method to help eradicate screwworm using a form of biological control, called the sterile insect technique, which releases infertile male flies in infested areas. When they mate with local females, no offspring result. With fewer fertile mates available in each succeeding generation, the fly, in essence, breeds itself out of existence.  USDA used this technique to eradicate screwworm from the U.S. and worked with other countries in Central America and the Caribbean to eradicate it there as well.  Today, USDA and its partners maintain a permanent sterile fly barrier at the Darien Gap between Panama and Colombia to prevent the establishment of any screwworm flies that enter from South America.

 

Florida winning the battle against one of the world’s largest snails

Florida is winning the fight against the destructive giant African land snail.
Florida is winning the fight against the destructive giant African land snail.

More than 164,000 giant African land snails  have been eliminated in Florida since the invasive snail was discovered in Miami-Dade County in 2011, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said Friday.

In addition to threatening more than 500 varieties of plants and agricultural commodities, GALS consume plaster and stucco to get the calcium needed to grow their shells. The snails also carry a parasite that can cause a type of meningitis in humans and animals.

“I am proud of the significant progress we’ve made in our effort to eliminate the giant African land snail,” Putnam said. “We will remain vigilant in our fight against these invasive pests.”

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ detector dog teams and dedicated staff execute an aggressive program to routinely survey and destroy snails. Over the last five years, the department has detected and eliminated snails in 31 core areas, located in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Due to the success of the program, the decommissioning team is recommending that 15, or nearly half, of the core areas be decommissioned in the coming year.

The snails haven’t been found anywhere in Florida outside of Miami-Dade and Broward counties, FDACS spokesman Aaron Keller said.

A team of FDACS and U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists use the following criteria to thoroughly decommission a core area:

  • Surveillance and treatment efforts for 17 months with no detection of live GALS;
  • An additional 19 months of surveillance with no detection of live GALS;
  • A minimum of one detector dog survey; and
  • A minimum of one night survey, when snails can be more active.

 

“USDA is extremely pleased with the cooperative program’s progress in eradicating this high-impact pest of U.S. agriculture in South Florida,” said USDA State Plant Health Director Paul Hornby. “Our ongoing partnership with State, county, and city officials, and the cooperation of Florida homeowners has made this progress possible. USDA has invested $13.5 million in the effort, and we remain committed to safeguarding Florida against this invasive pest.”

 

Originally from East Africa, the GALS, Achatina fulica, is one of the largest land snails in the world, growing up to eight inches in length. Each snail can live as long as nine years. GALS are difficult to eliminate because they have no natural predators and reproduce rapidly, with adults laying up to 1,200 eggs per year.

 

Ninety-six percent of cases have been identified due to calls to the helpline. To report a giant African land snail, call the department’s toll-free helpline at 1-888-397-1517. To preserve a snail sample with gloved hands put the snail in a zip-top bag, seal it, and put in a bucket or plastic container. Do not touch the snails or release them in a different location.

 

 

More than $55 million worth of marijuana destroyed in Florida in 2015

A woman rolls a marijuana cigarette as photographed on August 30, 2014 in Bethpage, New York. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
A woman rolls a marijuana cigarette as photographed on August 30, 2014 in Bethpage, New York. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Florida’s Domestic Marijuana Eradication Program resulted in the discovery of more than 328 indoor and outdoor grow sites, the destruction of 18,505 marijuana plants and the arrest of 279 people last year. The estimated street value of the seized marijuana is more than $55.6 million, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said Monday.

» RELATED: Read The Palm Beach Post’s coverage of medical marijuana in Florida

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services works to prevent the cultivation and distribution of marijuana through the Domestic Marijuana Eradication Program, which is a joint effort with the U.S. Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration and local sheriff’s offices and police departments in 45 counties across the state.

“By partnering with local law enforcement to detect and destroy illegal marijuana grow operations, we’re making communities safer for Floridians and visitors,” Putnam said.

The Domestic Marijuana Eradication Program provides funds to law enforcement agencies to help offset their marijuana grow site investigations and provides in-depth training to law enforcement officers at no cost to their agency. In 2015, these schools were attended by 87 law enforcement officers from 49 law enforcement agencies, including 26 sheriff’s offices, 22 police departments, and one state agency.

State takes action to stop travel firms accused of deceptive tactics

Florida's Attorney General has filed enforcement actions against allegedly deceptive travel companies.
Florida’s Attorney General has filed enforcement actions against allegedly deceptive travel companies.

Attorney General Pam Bondi and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam today announced coordinated actions taken to stop Florida travel companies accused of deceiving consumers.

Consumers complained that the defendants charged for items advertised as free; sold vacation packages that could not be used because of burdensome blackout dates and overly restrictive terms and conditions; refused to provide refunds or allow cancelation of purchases; greatly exaggerated savings; and made unauthorized charges to consumer credit cards.

“People plan and save for years to pay for a family vacation and it is disgraceful that anyone would use deceptive and unfair trade practices to take their money and ruin their plans,” Bondi said. “Thanks to this coordinated effort with Commissioner Putnam, we are taking action on behalf of travelers and to protect families from harmful business practices.”

“I thank Attorney General Bondi for her action against these travel companies, which allegedly defrauded consumers. By taking this swift action, my department and her office have helped protect Florida’s consumers from deceptive business practices,” Putnam said.

Bondi filed enforcement actions against the companies alleging violations of Florida’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act and seeking consumer restitution, civil penalties and injunctive relief. In conjunction with the Attorney General’s litigation, Putnam initiated administrative actions seeking to revoke the licenses of two of the same companies.

The coordinated actions are taken against the following companies:

Millennium Travel and Promotions, Inc. allegedly sent millions of misleading mailers promising travel awards but failed to disclose terms and conditions or the total cost of redeeming the awards. Only a small fraction of these consumers were ever able to redeem the promised travel awards.

Grand Incentives, Inc. allegedly failed to fulfill travel requests by citing overly restrictive terms and conditions or blackout travel dates; collected deposits and failed to timely return the funds when the consumer was unable to book travel; misrepresented the nature of fees charged to consumers; and made unauthorized charges on consumer credit cards.

Bondi also filed a complaint against an additional travel company:

Global Connections, Inc. allegedly allowed its Florida distributors to use unscrupulous sales tactics to induce consumers to purchase its vacation club memberships by greatly exaggerating the true savings, nature and value of the memberships. Global allegedly did not honor its cancellation policy and did not make consumers aware of restrictive travel terms and conditions and limited availability of vacation destinations.

Global Connections, Inc. is currently exempt from registration by the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Consumers who believe fraud has taken place can contact the department’s consumer protection and information hotline at 1-800-HELP-FLA (435-7352) or, for Spanish speakers, 1-800-FL-AYUDA (352-9832). For more information about the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, visit www.FreshFromFlorida.com.