The canker war

It's a cloudy Friday morning at Dick Spears' southwest Orange County home in the upscale Bay Hill neighborhood. Rain drizzles into Spears' swimming pool as he sits in his screened patio, surveying the fertile mini-orchard in his backyard. With particular pride, he points to his four citrus trees -- three orange, one grapefruit -- that have thrived for more than two decades.

"You get sentimentally attached," Spears says of his trees. "We've been in this house 22 years. We've pampered these trees."

But the end is near for Spears' beloved backyard trees. In September, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs discovered citrus canker on a lime tree five houses down the street, meaning Spears' trees fall within the state's 1,900-foot "exposed" zone. By the agriculture department's definition, Spears' trees are a "nuisance" and must be destroyed. In the eyes of the state, the trees are also worthless. Spears' will get minimal compensation for his loss. The state isn't legally bound to give him anything. This despite the fact that every tree in his yard is healthy and showing no signs of canker.

Citrus canker is a bacterial disease that causes blemishes, leaf splitting and premature fruit drop. It has plagued Florida's citrus industry on-and-off for a century. The most recent strain, discovered in Miami in 1995, has agriculture officials so alarmed that they've declared an "emergency," telling everyone who would listen that failing to eradicate canker would doom the $9 billion industry and cost 100,000 jobs.

Canker was first detected locally in an east Orange County neighborhood July 3, 2002. Prior to that discovery, a Broward County judge blocked the agriculture department from removing "exposed" citrus trees without a homeowners' permission. That means that the 1,400 healthy trees cut to date in Orange County all came down voluntarily.

But some homeowners are saying "no." And the situation is getting tense. In Spears' Bay Hill neighborhood alone, the agriculture department has issued 103 search warrants. Police officers routinely accompany inspectors into the backyards of residents who didn't give the state permission to search for canker.

Until a few weeks ago, homeowners here and across the state had the power to tell canker inspectors to get lost when they came to inspect, or to cut. But in January, the Fourth District Court of Appeals in West Palm overturned the cutting injunction, meaning the state can start destroying exposed trees at will. Agriculture officials say they're ready to fire up the chain saws in Central Florida in about two months.

Like all homeowners who lose their backyard trees, Spears will get a $100 voucher from Wal-Mart for the first tree, and $55 vouchers for the other three. That doesn't nearly begin to cover it, he says.

"They're like our dogs or our kids -- they're part of the family," he says. "I don't take kindly to some guy trying to gouge for profit on my family."

Take one for the team

The citrus industry is the sole beneficiary of the current eradication program, and it has fought hard to keep it intact.

First, taxpayers fund the $35 million-per-year cost of the canker program. Because lawmakers declared exposed citrus trees "worthless nuisances," there's no legal requirement for either the state or Big Citrus to pay market value -- estimated at between $400 and $2,000 per tree -- for backyard trees.

The citrus industry also gains when homeowners lose backyard trees by increasing their market share. Homeowners are essentially told to take one for the team.

"Citrus is still largely a family business," says Spears, 71. He's no ordinary crank.

He's served on the Orange County Homeowners Association, the Orange County Planning and Zoning Commission and, recently, Orange County Chairman Rich Crotty's transportation panel. "[The citrus industry] has been raised in a certain atmosphere that whatever they want goes," he says. "They have lobbied for a lot of things at the public's expense. I'm not trying to paint them as bad guys. I'm trying to paint them as guys who are used to a system that is now passe."

Citrus growers, and the state, are spinning the current eradication push as a war that has taken on a new urgency. Canker finds in Orange County are just a stone's throw from Polk County, the heart of Florida's citrus industry. Homeowners who don't voluntarily surrender their backyard trees are naive, selfish and putting an industry at increasing risk, they say.

"Homeowners [whose trees are taken] are angry, and I wouldn't blame them," says agriculture department spokeswoman Liz Compton. "But the fact is this is an emergency."

That's debatable.

The science behind eradication standards is in dispute. And a growing number of homeowners, like Spears, wonder why their trees should be sacrificed for what amounts to industry protectionism. Canker doesn't kill fruit trees. Moreover, 96 percent of Florida's orange crop, and 52 percent of its grapefruit crop, goes to juice, meaning blemished fruit has little impact on the industry as a whole.

And while there's little doubt that an unfettered canker outbreak would hurt -- one trade group estimates it could cost growers as much as $342 million a year -- it's unlikely the blow would be fatal. Some growers might get out of the business, but others would adapt. As University of California at Riverside plant pathologist Donald Cooksey puts it: "[Canker] would become a naturalized pest."

It's a pest that can be contained through a combination of spraying and destroying trees in the immediate vicinity of an infected tree, though agriculture officials say those kinds of precautions are expensive and ineffective.

What worries the citrus industry most, however, is the possibility that a canker outbreak could spark a quarantine on Florida citrus, which would "prohibit the shipment of fresh fruit from this state's most important economic contributors," Florida agricultural commissioner Charles Bronson wrote in a letter to the Orlando Sentinel in July.

"When they make that argument, I'm just about on the verge of saying, 'So what? Screw your trees,'" Spears says. "You have the right to succeed in business, you also have the right to fail. If I thought this problem was real, you'd never hear a word from me. But it's not, and responsible citizens have to stop being passive."

The more you look, the more you find

Citrus canker -- xanthomonas axonopodis pv. citri -- is nothing new. The Asian pathogen, which spread from citrus seedlings imported from Japan, has been documented in Florida since the 1890s and is spread primarily through wind-driven rain. Humans can transmit canker by either carrying the bacteria on their hands or shoes, or simply by moving infected fruits near other uninfected fruits.

At first glance, canker looks like any other fruit blemish. Brown, ugly splotches appear on the fruit, leaves and branches. With canker, however, the lesions are raised, and when viewed in sunlight, have a yellow halo around them.

Florida imposed its first citrus-canker quarantine in 1915, after an outbreak that spread from Texas to South Carolina. The state lost 257,745 trees to its eradication program, which was declared successful in 1933. In 1984, Florida again declared war on canker, this time chopping 20 million nursery trees at a cost of $94 million. During that eradication, however, the state realized it had made a mistake and was going after an innocuous strain of the disease.

From 1986 to 1994, the state also battled a small canker outbreak in Tampa Bay. Using a policy of destroying all trees within 125 feet of an infected tree, residential losses were kept to 600 trees, though nearly 88,000 commercial trees were removed. The state declared the eradication successful in 1994.

Just a year later, a fruit-fly trapper discovered canker on a residential tree near the Miami International Airport. Researchers determined the canker had been there for two or three years, and had spread 14 square miles. The state began destroying all infected trees and "pruning back to brown wood all exposed trees within a 38-m (125-ft.) radius," according to a 2001 report by Department of Agriculture researchers. "It was hoped that most exposed trees could escape infection and be salvaged."

But by 1996, the department decided that method wasn't working. Nearly 35 percent of the exposed trees got canker, so the department cut all trees within that 125-foot exposed zone. By mid-1997, the canker had spread to 140 square miles, and with it the budget to eradicate it shot up from $3 million to $8.7 million, while workforce charged with the task ballooned from 60 to 233. In May, researchers found canker again in Hillsborough County, indicating that the earlier canker hadn't been eliminated after all.

In 1998, under mounting criticism from homeowners who didn't want their "exposed" trees removed, the department stopped cutting, instead choosing to study how canker grows.

After 18 months of research, U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist Tim Gottwald held a private meeting with fellow scientists and members of the citrus industry. They concluded that cutting trees within 1,900 feet of an infected tree would stop canker from spreading 95 percent of the time. The Florida Department of Agriculture adopted Gottwald's proposal as gospel.

Since 1995, the Department of Agriculture has cut down nearly 2.5 million citrus trees -- 1.7 million from commercial groves and 617,000 from residences.

But canker hasn't been stopped. In the next five years, it spread to 15 counties, including Orange, where the disease was discovered in July. That fact alone raises questions: If canker is such a rapidly spreading disease, why did the strain found in Miami in 1995 spread just 14 square miles in nearly three years? And why, soon after the state began eradicating, did it spread so quickly?

To critics of the cutting, the answer is simple: Citrus canker has never been eradicated, and since it was introduced into Florida's ecosystem a century ago, it has never gone away. The more you look, the more you find.

Like the flu

"[Canker hysteria] has been going on since 1984. I'm getting a little tired of it," says Jack Whiteside, a retired plant pathologist and leading critic of the state's eradication approach. "It is a blemishing disease. It can't affect the internal quality of fruit. The disease has very little impact on the tree itself. It can cause some leaf splitting, some fruit drop, a little die-back [of branches]. The severity is going to vary year-to-year based on the weather. During a dry spring, the disease may not be seen at all. It can appear to disappear."

In other words, canker can be inconspicuous, so it's impossible to find and eliminate all of it.

Other critics take issue with the agriculture department's assessment of the disease's severity. "[Canker] causes fruit drop," says Heinz Wutscher, a retired fruit-tree expert who spent 32 years as a research horticulturalist and adjunct professor at the University of Florida. "Just about everything else causes fruit drop. There's always fruit drop. You lose 10 percent [of a harvest] to drop anyway."

"Canker is like the flu," says Boca Raton attorney Barry Silver, who last year filed a class-action lawsuit to get additional compensation for homeowners whose trees were cut. "It's there, but it's not a big deal. "

In court hearings, Jack Bailey, a plant pathologist from North Carolina State University, suggested that the science behind Gottwald's 1,900-foot rule was illegitimate because at 95 percent success, the department was ensuring that canker would continue without end, since some canker would always exist.

Bailey also believes the state's methods of destroying trees -- chipping them -- may actually spread the disease by shooting infected pieces into the wind, which could spread it. Other opponents hypothesize that careless canker inspectors themselves are tracking the disease across the state, which would account for the rapid spread of the disease soon after the state took such an interest in it.

And then there's the idea that the state is ignoring other options for dealing with canker, including spraying copper bactericides, which Wutscher says are already used for other citrus diseases.

Agriculture officials say spraying is prohibitively expensive -- the combined costs of lost commercial trees and the price of spraying would total $150 million a year, whereas cutting costs about $30 million.

And even if copper spraying helped contain canker, that may not prevent other citrus-producing states and countries from blocking the import of Florida citrus.

Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Compton downplays the eradication program's critics. Only a small minority of the scientific community disagrees with the establishment's view, she says. "You see the same names over and over."

Polls show support for the program at roughly 70 percent. Though, as Compton acknowledges, "It's a vociferous minority. The minority has put out misinformation. I don't think we're exaggerating [canker's effect]. We have to do a better job of educating them."

To critics, "education" is a code word for "propaganda."

Attorney Silver attacks the study's assumption that every tree within the 1,900-foot radius will become infected and is therefore a nuisance. "The Department of Agriculture has been lying from beginning to end."

It's so selfish

The department's efforts to portray those who don't agree with the eradication program as quacks plays well to the mainstream media, but it hasn't gone over well with Broward County Judge Leonard Fleet.

For the last two years, Fleet has been the thorn in the citrus industry's side. On Nov. 17, 2000, prompted by a legal challenge from Pompano Beach and Broward County, Fleet issued a ruling declaring the agriculture department's eradication policy illegal.

It was a "dramatic, drastic and wholesale destruction of privately owned citrus trees," Fleet says. He also called the department's attitude "cavalier." The department adopted the 1,900-foot rule improperly by refusing public input and making it nearly impossible for homeowners to appeal. He blocked the department from cutting any more exposed trees in Broward County.

On June 20, 2001, the Fourth District Court of Appeals overturned Fleet's ruling, not because it was flawed, but because the plaintiffs didn't seek an administrative hearing within the Department of Agriculture before suing.

In 2002, the state Legislature amended its citrus-canker law, codifying the 1,900-foot exposure zone and directing the Department of Agriculture to "destroy all infected citrus trees and all citrus trees exposed to infection." The new law instructed the department to issue homeowners with an "immediate final order" telling them their trees were to be destroyed and giving them 10 days to request a stay from the nearest appellate court. Exposed trees, the law declared, were devoid of value.

Out of the goodness of lawmakers' hearts, they allocated $27 million for Wal-Mart vouchers. (Coincidentally, in August 2002, Wal-Mart heir John Walton gave the Republican Party of Florida $325,000, making him the state's biggest individual political contributor.) That figure, Compton says, is roughly equivalent to what the federal government pays grove owners when canker claims their trees. The state doesn't compensate grove owners.

On May 24, Fleet struck back, declaring the law unconstitutional and again blocking the destruction of exposed trees. (In the previous ruling, Fleet attacked the Department of Agriculture's administrative policies; this time, he blasted the law legislators had crafted.) "The science ... is significantly unsound and, therefore, is not constitutionally acceptable as the basis for legislative abrogation" of property rights, Fleet wrote. "All citrus trees not patently demonstrating the existence of citrus canker have a determinable value and cannot be destroyed by the state in the absence of full and fair compensation ..."

The citrus industry's response: "It's unfortunate that one judge and a vocal minority are causing this disease to spread," Casey Pace, manager of public affairs for Florida Citrus Mutual told Florida Today in September 2002. "It is so selfish."

Not unlike the citrus industry's quest to remove exposed backyard trees, says attorney Silver. His class-action suit alleges a conspiracy between lawmakers and the citrus industry to rob homeowners of private property at the behest of Big Citrus. "The citrus industry doesn't have to pay for [eradication]," he says. "Their interest is to maximize this. What's going on is the less availability [of citrus], you have to pay more."

Silver's lawsuit is scheduled for class-action certification in August, he says.

On Jan. 15, the Fourth District again overruled Fleet, paving the way for the department to start cutting again. Broward County attorney Andrew Meyers asked the court to reconsider, and the department's plans are on hold until that appeals court issues a decision or Meyers asks the Florida Supreme Court to intervene.

When the chain saws resume, the pitiful compensation homeowners now get may disappear completely. Sen. Nancy Argenziano, R-Crystal River, the incoming chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, has suggested eliminating the compensation program altogether, saying the state should instead focus on Medicaid and programs for the disabled.

The canker gestapo

On a cold, clear Wednesday morning, state citrus-canker inspectors Nelson Moya and Robert Tait drive out to Bay Hill. They are part of the so-called "canker gestapo." They park a white Chevy Astro minivan on the street and walk door to door -- spraying their shoes with antibacterial soap before entering each property to ensure they don't track canker -- asking homeowners for permission to inspect their backyard citrus trees for canker.

Everyone says yes, though it's not like they have much of a choice. The same morning, sheriff's deputies accompany another team of inspectors as they serve five search warrants to inspect the backyards of uncooperative residents.

Moya and Tait's job is pretty simple: They knock. If someone answers, they ask permission to inspect the backyard. If the homeowner agrees, they search; if the homeowner says no, they come back with police escorts and warrants. If no one answers, they leave a note on the door. If the homeowners don't respond, they get a search warrant.

Today they are doing repeat visits, and they're reinspecting trees for canker. Should they find anything suspicious, they'll take samples back to the lab. If a tree tests positive, it is destroyed. After those trees are cut, inspectors come back to make sure there are no seedlings or remaining roots.

With healthy trees, Moya and Tait ask the homeowners -- all of whom are within the 1,900-foot "exposed" zone -- to sign a waiver allowing the state to cut them down. None agree. Says the first woman they encounter: "Don't make me do that. My husband was mad I signed the first [search] warrant."

Another man says he'll wait to see how the legal wranglings work out.

Spears is more defiant. As the cutting becomes frequent, he expects the Orange County Homeowners Association and, eventually, the county commission to weigh in. Personally, he pledges to fight in court to save his four trees.

"I don't know where all this is going to end," he says. "However this ends up is going to be a history lesson. Unless my understanding of the documents under which we live is incorrect, we're going to find that you can't put [special] interests above the interests of the people. It's inappropriate to destroy some innocent person's property for the benefit of another."

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