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California Citrus Growers Sue Florida

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) _ For decades, a common fungus found on citrus in California was so insignificant that farmers say they nearly forgot about it.

So they were taken by surprise earlier this month when Florida began quarantining truckloads of oranges, a move that has threatened to cut off one of California's most lucrative domestic markets for oranges, lemons and grapefruits.

The move has also prompted a lawsuit by the California citrus industry, which exports about $75 million worth of citrus to Florida each year.

``We've stopped shipping to Florida. It's hurting,'' said Joel Nelson, president of the California Citrus Mutual, a nonprofit representing farmers who grow 200,000 acres of citrus. ``The retail stores are crying, the trucking companies are crying. This affects a lot of people, all along the line.''

California growers are convinced the quarantine is retaliation for federal rules banning Florida orange exports to California, Texas and other citrus-growing states to prevent the spread of the more infectious citrus canker disease.

Florida officials say that's not so.

``They say (the fungus has) been in California for years, so why do we need to do this now? Well, frankly, we were not aware of how much it was in California and our job is to protect our growers,'' said Liz Compton, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Growers and agriculture officials faced off in state court in Tallahassee on Tuesday in a battle over the validity of the Dec. 7 quarantine. California sought an emergency injunction to lift it but Circuit Judge William Gary ruled against California on Wednesday, deciding in part that the state had failed to show the rule is unconstitutional or that it is likely to suffer irreparable harm pending final resolution of the lawsuit.

At issue is Septoria citri, a common fungus the U.S. Department of Agriculture has classified as a disease of minor significance to citrus crops. The disease first appears as small, pitted lesions and ultimately can cause premature fruit drop.

Under the quarantine, every container of California citrus must be inspected for fungus spots, treated with a fungicide and stamped with a certificate authorized by the state.

The fight is unusual territory for the nation's two citrus titans. The Florida and California industries have traditionally been cordial, in large part because their markets are different: Most of Florida's crop is crushed for juice, while most of California's is sold as whole fruit.

California growers have been shipping about 7,000 tractor trailers full of citrus to Florida annually.

Steve Lyle, spokesman for the California Department of Food and Agriculture, said he does not believe any California grower has become certified to meet Florida's stringent new requirements. Growers say they will not be able to fully meet the requirements before the end of the season.

To meet the requirements, California growers and shippers say they will have to radically change the way they package and haul California citrus to Florida and elsewhere.

Rarely does one tractor trailer deliver to just one state. To meet the new requirements, growers will have to tailor shipments to Florida and document them, a process that will cost more, require more trips and drive up prices, growers say.

Florida state regulators say they must protect Florida growers who have been forced to destroy entire groves to deal with citrus canker, greening disease and leaf miner. Septoria citri, which is not found in Florida, could scar more of the state's harvest, they say.

In the lawsuit, California growers _ led by the citrus nonprofit and Sunkist Growers _ claim the ban on California imports violates interstate commerce and discriminates against California products.

``This action is not to protect the health and safety of the Florida citrus industry, but is an improper burden upon interstate commerce that protects the Florida fresh industry at the expense of the California fresh industry,'' the lawsuit reads.

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BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) _ Farmers and ranchers spend more money on health insurance than most Americans, a new report has found.

Farm and ranch families spent an average of $7,247 on health insurance in 2006, according to The Access Project, a research organization at Brandeis University in Boston, which conducted the survey.

The report, released Tuesday, found that one in four producers have financial problems because of the cost of health insurance.

``It is generally considered that spending 10 percent of one's income on health costs is an indicator of excessive health burden,'' said lead researcher Jeffrey Prottas, a professor at Brandeis University. ``For many in our sample, this was certainly the case.''

The researchers' sample included more than 2,000 farmers and ranchers in North Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska and South Dakota.

The report said families who farm and ranch in those states are at a disadvantage because they often have to purchase health insurance in the individual market, instead of getting it as part of a group plan provided by an employer.

The study found that 36 percent of families surveyed are paying an average of $4,359 more than their counterparts who get insurance through an employer.

``It's getting to be such a burden that some of them are just going underinsured or uninsured,'' said Wade Moser, executive director of the North Dakota Stockmen's Association.

Moser said loan interest payments used to make up the single largest expense in ranching. Now it's health insurance, he said.

Moser said he would like to see rules allowing farmers and ranchers to deduct their personal health care costs from their taxes in the same manner that business owners can deduct the cost for their employees.

``That is their business, and they are the employees,'' he said.
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