Putnam, Fla. Lawmakers Seek Federal Help for Avocado Growers

Gary Cooper Florida, Specialty Crops, Vegetables

WASHINGTON – Congressman Adam Putnam (R-Fla.) today announced he has sent a bipartisan letter, co-signed by a dozen other members of the Florida congressional delegation, to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture seeking steps to protect the state’s avocado growers.
Without strong action, the lawmakers wrote, “the avocado industry is threatened with extinction.” The Laurel Wilt fungus, a disease spread by the Redbay Ambrosia beetle, has quickly spread across Florida, and has recently been detected within 70 miles of the state’s primary avocado production region in South Florida.

“We are asking Secretary Vilsak to immediately restrict the interstate transport of Redbay wood and plants that play host to the beetle,” said Putnam. “In addition, we are urging him to use all the tools we provided in the 2008 Farm Bill. That legislation authorizes the USDA to budget up to $50 million for detection, diagnostics and control strategies. Without swift action by USDA we could witness the destruction of an entire crop.”

“Immediate action is needed if we are to save our vital avocado industry,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. “We are asking the Secretary to help us stop this immediate threat; we believe that the USDA has the power and the funds to help us. If they, along with state and local authorities, employ all their assets we can avoid the possibility of a total wipeout to our state’s avocado production capacity.”

“I am pleased to join my Florida colleagues in requesting that Secretary Vilsack take immediate steps to restrict the transport of Redbay wood products,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart. “This lethal fungus poses a serious threat to South Florida, the heart of the state’s avocado industry, and USDA must take all necessary actions to limit the spread of the disease.”

Florida’s avocado growers produce more than 800,000 bushels annually, accounting for nearly 10 percent of the total U.S. production.

In addition to Putnam, Ros-Lehtinen and Diaz-Balart, the letter was signed by Senators Bill Nelson (D), Mel Martinez (R) and Representatives Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D), Alcee Hastings (D), Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R), Robert Wexler (D), Ron Klein (D), Kendrick Meek (D), Cliff Stearns (R), and Allen Boyd (D).

Since 2001, Putnam has represented Florida’s 12th Congressional District, which includes most of Polk County and portions of Hillsborough and Osceola counties.

Here is the complete text of the letter as sent:
March 27, 2009
The Honorable Tom Vilsack
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture 14th and Independence Avenue, SW
Washington DC 20250

Dear Secretary Vilsack:

We ask for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) continued attention and timely action to address the serious threat to the avocado industry, due to the Laurel Wilt fungus. Accelerated efforts by the Department are critical to safeguard and preserve the future of avocado production in this nation.

As you are aware, the avocado industry is threatened with extinction from the Laurel Wilt fungus carried by the Redbay Ambrosia beetle. The disease has spread quickly in our state and been found recently only 70 miles from the heart of Florida’s avocado production region.

We aie aware that preliminary research is currently being undertaken on the invasive pest and fungus, and are appreciative that USDA is taking action to begin to address this critical matter. However, while research is underway, additional action is needed to safeguard the future of the industry.

Therefore, we request that USDA institute an interstate restriction on unprocessed Redbay wood products to protect forests, avocado trees and other hosts, such as other tree varieties and plants. In addition, action is needed to detect where the invasive pest is within Florida through the use of surveys, and eradication of the pest and fungus wherever possible.

Recognizing the significance of plant threats to America agriculture, Congress authorized and funded through the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of2008, or Farm Bill (PL 110-234) Sec. 10201, $45-50 million annually for detection, diagnostics and effective control strategies. The Act established the Early Plant Pest Detection and Surveillance Improvement Program to provide, “the full range of activities undertaken to find newly introduced plant pests.. before the plant pests become established; or the plant pest infestations become too large and costly to eradicate or control.”

The Farm Bill also authorized a Threat Identification and Mitigation Program to address threats to the domestic production of crops through risk assessments and action plans to assist in preventing the introduction and widespread dissemination of new plant pest and disease threats, as well as a Specialty Crop Certification and Risk Management System, to provide funds and technical assistance to specialty crop parties to address plant pests; and to mitigate the risk of plant pests in the movement of plants and plant products.

We ask that USDA access these Farm Bill programs immediately to address Laurel Wilt disease facing avocados. These requested actions are critical to contain, eradicate or control this destructive pest and disease. The economic impact on the industry, its workers and suppliers, on the on the economy as a whole would be devastating.

We appreciate your timely consideration of this important matter. Thank you and look forward to continuing to work with you.