Canker Sore

State workers are cutting down homeowners' citrus trees to save Florida's fruit industry. It's a South Florida chain saw massacre.

Maria Austin is frying bacon in the kitchen of her canalside house in North Lauderdale, unaware that four men with chain saws have just pulled up in a pickup truck. It is 11:15 on a Friday morning in June, and the 70-year-old madrileña and her 54-year-old husband, Lawrence, are about to have a late breakfast. They had anticipated the nefarious visit but could not have predicted the hour or day. But now the henchmen -- and henchwomen -- are here, nine in all.Lawrence, a calm thin man, emerges nervously from a side door to meet them. He shouts for Maria, who steps out in her faded yellow sundress. She knows why they have come and erupts in a paroxysm of emotion. She yells at the group, paces back and forth on the lawn, grabs garments from her clothesline, cries, then repeats it all. As she does, one of the men slices the trunk of a four-foot-tall lemon tree with a flick of a chain saw, and the plant tumbles over. He and three accomplices then begin to circle a huge 30-foot-tall grapefruit tree that towers over the canal. They eye its hefty branches. Using ropes one begins to scale it, hauling his saw with him.

"I have this tree for 24 years," Maria exclaims. "It's a beautiful tree. It no have no disease." Four women in jeans, sneakers, and white polo shirts -- the uniform of state agriculture inspectors -- stand nearby, speechless. Maria continues: "It's my baby. I fertilized it."

Mark Fagan, a public information officer for the Florida Department of Agriculture's Citrus Canker Eradication Program, tries to explain why her baby and hundreds of thousands of other backyard citrus trees in South Florida must be slaughtered.

Four-inch nails: Mabel Tower displays her metallic welcome mat
Steve Satterwhite
Four-inch nails: Mabel Tower displays her metallic welcome mat

"The tree may not look sick to you right now, but in a few months it will start losing its canopy, and the fruit won't mature anymore. It will drop to the ground," Fagan says sternly. "And then the disease will spread another 1900 feet to other trees."

"That is bullshit," fumes Maria, barely stopping to listen. "Do you know how much money I save not buying lemons and grapefruit in the store? I'm so mad I could scream."

Other South Floridians have been so angry they could grab guns. At about 10:30 a.m. on March 27, state workers arrived at the Tamarac home of Nelson Edwards to saw up his 12-foot grapefruit tree.

Agriculture inspector David Benner knocked on the front door and told the wiry 95-year-old the cutting crew was about to begin its labors. But Edwards ordered them off his property and threatened to sue. Benner called Raymond Rogers, one of numerous officers from the Broward County Sheriff's Department who help canker personnel when the going gets gruff. But Rogers was unable to assuage the acrimonious codger.

"I don't care who you are!" Edwards yelled, according to the police report, and disappeared into his house. Moments later he exited a side door. When Rogers walked around the corner, he was staring down the barrel of the rifle Edwards was holding. The old man then started moving the gun's bolt, so Rogers ordered him to disarm.

"Drop it or I will have to shoot you," the cop warned. Then Benner sneaked up from behind and snatched the rifle. Rogers booked Edwards for aggravated assault, and the elderly man was released on $5000 bail. In early May, Edwards pleaded guilty, and Judge Barry Goldstein gave him a year on probation.

The trauma of citrus tree loss has ignited similar outbursts in Miami-Dade. In late May two inspectors knocked at a house west of Sweetwater. After no response they walked into the back yard to look for citrus trees. Soon a middle-aged man holding a .45 automatic was excoriating them.

"He was going, "You better be glad I didn't shoot you!'" recounts 23-year-old Lashonda McHenry, one of the inspectors. She and her coworker, 54-year-old James McVeigh, retreated and radioed their supervisor. Four Miami-Dade police arrived and convinced the man to allow the inspection. "I was scared shitless," confesses McVeigh. In late June, Miami-Dade cops arrested a 54-year-old man who said he would shoot the crew that tried to inspect a citrus tree in his yard. Miami-Dade police booked him for obstruction of justice.

About 1200 state workers are now prowling through neighborhoods of South Florida on a cumbersome seek-and-destroy operation aimed at pulverizing as many as a million citrus trees by early next year. The effort, state officials say, is necessary to protect commercial groves in Central Florida, which form the hub of the state's $8.5 billion citrus trade. To persuade skeptical residents, agriculture inspectors warn that a ravaged grapefruit and orange industry would send less revenue to Tallahassee and thus cause another ill: a tax increase. Tens of thousands of jobs could be lost, they add.

So far, more than 34,000 trees have met their demise in Broward, 365 in Palm Beach, and about 210,500 in Miami-Dade.

But what Maria Austin and thousands of residents don't know is the demise of their trees -- and the expenditure of at least 175 million taxpayer dollars -- might have been avoided if Florida's agriculture department had attacked the disease in full force when it emerged way back in 1995. That is the year a state pathologist discovered a tree infected with the bacteria in a yard in West Dade. With a small budget, a few dozen inspectors made the rounds. By the time the U.S. Congress came to the rescue with $25 million in 1999, several summers of hurricanes and thunderstorms had already blown the bacteria across much of Miami-Dade. That year inspectors discovered the canker had traveled to Broward County, and the canker-eradication program opened its Plantation office. Lack of cooperation in the public and private sector in both counties has made a desperate situation worse.Like the plants it attacks, the disease has origins far from South Florida. Commonly known as Asiatic citrus canker, Xanthomonas axonopodis does not kill trees (nor is it harmful to the human body), but it causes rough brown splotches on leaves and fruit. Canker-infected lemons, limes, oranges, and grapefruits with lesions are edible but so ugly they are difficult to market. A severe case can also cause a citrus tree to lose leaves and prematurely drop its fruit. Florida is a welcome haunt for these bacteria, which multiply rapidly, especially in hot, humid weather. "They're just waiting for water," says Lou Lodyga, a pathologist for the Florida Department of Agriculture's Division of Plant Industry. "You get driving rains, and that spreads them like wildfire." Scientists call trees with symptoms infected. Nearby trees are termed exposed.This scourge, this shade-sucking, fruit-snatching curse, has wreaked havoc in Florida twice before. Beginning about 1910 the state spent six and a half million dollars to root out the first canker epidemic by slashing and burning infected trees. Workers also pruned leaves on exposed trees within 50 feet of a canker outbreak. Back then citrus groves generally were much smaller and more scattered. "They took really drastic action," says Lavern Timmer of the University of Florida's Citrus Research and Education Center (CREC) in Lake Alfred. "They burned everything, nurseries and groves. And they basically had people running around with flamethrowers, dousing the trees with gasoline and burning them on the spot. And they disinfected everybody with mercuric chloride. I'm amazed some of the people lived through that." These early terminators wiped out most of the canker by the '20s and managed to subdue various flare-ups in the later '20s and '30s.

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