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Updated: 06/21/2013 03:58:02PM

Congress still working on greening funds

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The U.S. Senate has passed major farm-policy legislation that contains U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson’s provision for creating a trust fund for agricultural research to combat the deadly citrus greening disease that’s threating Florida’s $9 billion annual industry.

Additionally, the Florida Democrat received public pledges of support from two key Senate colleagues, Max Baucus and Debbie Stabenow, who chair the Finance and Agriculture committees, respectively. Both lawmakers gave Nelson open declarations in support of the citrus trust fund on the Senate floor.

Any differences between House of Representatives bills with the Senate’s will be worked out by a conference panel over which Baucus and Stabenow would likely be highly influential. Thus, their support is seen as a big boost in the so-far uphill battle against one of the most deadly invaders ever of Florida’s citrus crop, Nelson indicated.

In a report out last year, University of Florida researchers found the greening disease cost Florida’s economy $4.5 billion and 8,000 jobs between 2006 and 2012.

“We won’t be growing citrus in Florida much longer, if we don’t soon find a cure,” Nelson warned in a speech to the Senate earlier today.

If the House accepts the citrus fund language, Nelson’s office estimated that as much $150 million over five years could go toward research, which would be on top of $11 million Nelson already has secured to help combat the disease. The funding for the research would come from a tariff on imported citrus.

The House has its own $940 billion version of the farm bill. Compared with the Senate bill, the House version has less money for food stamps and nutrition, or $743 billion over 10 years. There’s also less money for conservation, slightly deeper cuts to commodity payments and a bit more money for crop insurance, thanks to a number of rules used to calculate payments. (Under the Senate bill, for instance, farmers could lose their funding for premiums if they convert wetlands to crop production; the House doesn’t have that provision.)

The House is planning to take up its version this week, though there are still plenty of disagreements within the chamber — particularly on how the bill cuts food-stamp funding. The House and Senate bills will then have to be reconciled.

U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., a member of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, got money from the Agriculture Appropriations approved by the full committee last week that includes his requests for citrus disease research.

“A strong citrus industry in Florida is critical to growing our economy and creating jobs in our state, but it’s also vital to maintaining a safe, affordable and abundant food supply for our nation,” Rooney said. “Unfortunately, diseases like citrus greening are driving many of our growers out of business and crippling our industry.”

Rooney noted that since 1997, total citrus acreage in Florida has fallen by 25 percent, from 600,000 acres to 450,000 acres. Unless that trend is reversed, experts believe the state’s annual crop will become too small to sustain existing processing plants, costing the state much-needed jobs and its status as a top citrus producer.

“By cutting waste in other areas and setting clear priorities, the Agriculture Appropriations bill we approved in committee today will save taxpayers money overall, while providing a much-needed increase in funding for citrus disease research.”

The Senate last Monday voted 66-27 to approve a massive farm bill that will set the course of U.S. food policy. The old farm bill expired last year, and its replacement is 1,150 pages long, costing some $955 billion over 10 years.