When the Government Came for Florida’s Orange Trees

June 27, 2024   |   Tags: , , ,
topicsfood | Photo: oonal/iStock

Many South Florida residents remember with grief a day in the early '00s when the government came for their citrus trees.

"They didn't ask politely, 'Can we please come in and take your trees?' No, they said, we're taking the trees," one Orange County resident recalled.

Armed with chainsaws and woodchippers, contractors hired by the Florida Department of Agriculture were tasked with destroying any citrus trees—healthy grapefruit, lime, lemon, orange, or tangerine trees—that were within 1,900 feet of a citrus tree infected with canker. Among the casualties of the canker war were my grandmother's lime and sour orange trees in Miami.

Citrus canker is a disease that creates small lesions on fruit and leaves. The infected fruit remains harmless to humans. The real damage occurs when severe infections lead to defoliation and significant fruit drop, eventually rendering trees barren. Canker has plagued Florida since its first introduction in the early 1900s, prompting repeated, albeit unsuccessful, eradication attempts by the state.

Given the citrus industry's hefty contribution to Florida's economy since the 19th century, the statewide panic that sparked when canker reappeared in the late '90s is understandable. Eradication efforts started after an outbreak in 1995 and were met with pushback over the years from angered homeowners and growers. In 2002, then-Gov. Jeb Bush signed a bill clearing the way for the destruction of any citrus trees within a 1,900-foot radius of any diseased tree in order to protect the citrus industry. The law even allowed inspectors to obtain countywide search warrants for properties that were 
otherwise inaccessible.

Despite these efforts, the spread of canker persisted, exacerbated by South Florida's windy and rainy conditions. The infected area ballooned from 14 miles in 1995 to over 650 miles by 2002, after the state had already culled over 2 million trees. By 2006, when the program was ultimately abandoned as ineffective, the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences estimated that more than 16 million nursery, residential, and commercial trees had met their demise via burning or wood chipping.

During the tumult of the 2000s eradication, the state offered to compensate homeowners with $100 Walmart gift cards for their first destroyed tree and $55 for each subsequent tree. Residents later sued, arguing that the tree destruction constituted an unconstitutional taking of their private property. They contended that the state owed compensation based on the replacement cost of the trees, which often exceeded that nominal gift card amount. Over the next 18 years, the government paid out tens of millions of dollars to affected residents across 
Broward, Lee, Miami-DadeOrange, and Palm Beach counties.

That was not Florida's first foray into mass property destruction for the supposed greater good. A similar eradication program in the '80s was followed by a swift resurgence of the disease. Today, canker still resides in Florida, yet the citrus industry thrives thanks to ongoing decontamination efforts—no eradication necessary.

The post When the Government Came for Florida's Orange Trees appeared first on Reason.com.


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