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USDA Cracks the WHIP on Hurricane Irma Citrus Aid


There’s a lot of nostalgia in the Florida citrus industry these days for the 2004 hurricane season.

That’s not to say Florida growers hold fond memories of the destruction wrought by hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne, which wiped out more than half that season’s citrus crop.

But this week in particular, they recalled the ease at which the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s hurricane disaster relief program worked more than a decade ago. It provided about $500 million in relief to Florida citrus growers.

“It’s not nearly as simple as the 2004 program,” said Joe Davis Jr., a Wauchula-based grower, after a two-hour meeting with USDA officials on the new $2.63 billion Wildfires and Hurricane Indemnity Program, or WHIP, at the Highlands County Agri-Civic Center in Sebring.

Marcinda Kester, executive director of the USDA’s Polk County Farm Service Agency in Bartow, needed most of that two hours to review the details of applying for WHIP, including the records and information an applicant needs to provide to determine eligibility, as well as fielding questions from nearly 300 growers in attendance.

Kester made the same presentation Monday evening in Lake Alfred and got a similar reaction, said Mike Sparks, chief executive of Florida Citrus Mutual in Bartow, which sponsored the series of four meetings this week on the WHIP program’s mechanics.

“It was well received (in Lake Alfred), but the most glaring issue for growers is how much different the WHIP program is from the 2004 program,” Sparks said.

Basically, the 2004 hurricane relief program was based on how close one of the hurricanes came to an owner’s grove and the average crop losses within four designated zones away from the storm. Growers did not need to prove actual crop losses to get hurricane assistance.

Growers now need to document their losses to get WHIP assistance based on the previous several years of production in each grove, according to Kester.

“I’m very appreciative of the program and all the people who worked to get it,” said Kyle Story, a Lake Wales-based grower whose family also runs a grove management firm. “I think it’s a fair and equitable program.”

It’s also a program his family company appears to benefit from, although that remains to be determined, he said. The county-based Farm Service Agency offices will not begin taking applications until July 16.

“I can live with it (the complexity), but it’s going to be a challenge for Florida growers,” Story said.

John Barben, an Avon Park-based grower and former Florida Citrus Mutual president who lobbied for federal hurricane assistance since Irma, also expressed appreciation for the federal help and concern about the complex application process.

“We’re getting help from the federal government. We worked long and hard to get it. The growers need it,” Barben said. “One thing about the WHIP program is that it’s based on a grower’s individual losses, so it’s fair.”

One thing citrus growers can do before the 90-day application period is register their operations with the local Farm Service office, including proof of ownership and parcel numbers, Kester said.

How WHIP works

The WHIP applicant will have to provide some basic information about their grove acreage, including number of trees by variety (orange, grapefruit, etc.) and date of planting for each tree, Kester said. Trees planted within four years before the hurricane are not eligible for assistance.

Growers will have to provide up to five continuous years of harvest data with each application, she said. If they don’t have that data or there’s a gap in the five-year span, the USDA will use countywide averages instead.

There is no income ceiling to get benefits, but growers are divided into two classes based on whether they get more or less than 75 percent of their annual income from farming or ranching, Kester said. Income data must go back three years and be certified by an accountant.

Applicants deriving less than 75 percent of their income from agriculture are eligible for no more than the minimum WHIP benefit of $125,000, she said. Applicants will get that minimum even if their losses under the WHIP formula are less than that amount.

Growers who can show they get 75 percent of their income from agriculture will be eligible for up to $900,000 in WHIP benefits, Kester said. No single person or company can get more than $900,000. Benefits also are capped at 85 percent of actual losses for growers with crop insurance and 65 percent for uninsured growers.

The program also requires a grower commit to purchasing crop insurance for the next two citrus seasons, Kester added.

Because so many growers have not yet received a determination of their crop insurance payments, WHIP will pay out 50 percent of the expected federal benefit upon determining eligibility, she said. The balance will come after insurance payments are resolved.

Kester pledged determining eligibility will take “weeks, not months” after application.

Block grant program

Citrus Mutual estimates Florida growers will get $100 million in WHIP benefits from the program, Sparks said. Because that’s far less than the estimated $760 million in Florida citrus losses, the USDA created a $340 million block grant program to cover other losses.

State agriculture officials are still working out the details of the block grant program’s mechanics, said Matt Joyner, an official with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. But Joyner gave some expected highlights.

One will offer benefits for replanting or rehabilitating trees damaged during Irma, including the cost of new trees and irrigation systems, fertilization and other grove caretaking costs, he said. That benefit will be capped at $15,000 per person or company.

A second part will compensate growers for production losses in the 2018-19 citrus season and more, Joyner said. That’s based on the Florida citrus industry’s experience following the 2004 hurricanes, when it took four years to regain lost production.

Benefits from both block grant programs and WHIP cannot exceed 85 percent of losses for insured growers and 65 percent for uninsured growers, he said.

The third program would give growers subsidies for purchasing two years of crop insurance if they commit to purchasing a total of at least four years of coverage, Joyner said.

A grower who fails to follow through on the four-year commitment would have to repay all his WHIP and block grant payments, he added.

Source: Kevin Bouffard, The Ledger

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