Canker Sore

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

Even the offices of Miami-Dade's agricultural extension service may have been infected. "We have had people bring us samples of citrus to see, not necessarily with canker," crops specialist Carlos Balerdi reports. "We tell them the quarantine says they're not supposed to remove citrus from their property. And they say, "Oh, well, I think my problem is different.' This is what is very hard to get through to people."

Many researchers are not optimistic about the possibility of enforcing a quarantine in Miami-Dade. "People say, "I pay taxes. I'll do what I want,'" observes Lodyga, the state pathologist. Effective or not, the quarantine is likely to be a fact of Miami-Dade life for several years. Even after crews finish destroying all the citrus trees in the county, probably several months from now at the current rate, inspections must continue. "If inspectors find just one tree or seedling with canker," warns state citrus canker­eradication program spokesman Mark Fagan, "then the quarantine has to remain in place for another two years."

More canker could arrive any day. A USDA investigation report released in May found lax inspection practices at seaports and airports in Miami and Fort Lauderdale, likely passages for whoever introduced the current strain of the pathogen in the early '90s.

Another complaint common among the effort's detractors is the state's decision to compensate affected homeowners with $100 credit vouchers that can be used only at Wal-Mart nursery departments. So far the state has mailed 42,000 of them to homeowners, which will send $4.2 million of business to the Arkansas-based retailer. Half of the credits went to homeowners who qualified last year but did not receive the aid because funding dried up. The state has a total of $7 million in federal funds for the voucher program, dubbed Shade Florida.

Critics argue money should be channeled to small local nurseries that have endured losses in citrus tree sales owing to the quarantine. "First, [the legislators] should have tried to help local people, because we are the ones who are suffering," fumes one local horticulturist who asked to remain anonymous. The state could easily issue coupons redeemable at a variety of stores, he adds. "Second, at Wal-Mart people have to pay twice the amount of money for a tree. And the selection at Wal-Mart is sometimes extremely poor in ornamental trees or in tropical fruits, compared to temperate-zone fruits like peaches and pears."Like any emergency operation run by a government agency that relies on hundreds of new employees, the anticanker effort is rife with inefficiency. On the morning of Thursday, June 8, Ricardo Polanco is orchestrating a series of chain saw massacres in Carol City. Polanco, a former Target store manager, oversees four state employees, each of whom coordinates a team of four workers from Asplundh, a national firm that calls itself "the tree expert company." He insists he has had no hostile encounter with enraged tree owners. "It's just like how we handled customer service at my store," he explains. "It's all about the way you talk to them. They agree with you if you talk the right way."Polanco says his crews hit an average of 30 properties per day, cutting anywhere from 30 to 200 trees. In all about 350 cutting crews are now making the rounds, up from 60 a month ago. To date workers have jettisoned nearly 250,000 trees in Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties. Yet Polanco acknowledges that, because of the sheer volume of work, trees that may be spreading the disease often remain standing for months after they are identified.

At a house on NW 186th Street, one of Polanco's underlings, 40-year-old Olive Taylor, is administering last rites to all eight of Maudlin Cummings' citrus trees, including a 25-year-old orange and a 40-year-old grapefruit. In a few minutes the Asplundh team renders her back yard shadeless. Cummings, a 61-year-old teacher at a nearby private elementary school, takes her loss in stride. But she has a few questions for Taylor, who joined the state citrus canker­eradication program in January, after working as a medical assistant at a psychiatric hospital. "What they going to do with the roots?" Cummings asks in her Jamaican accent. Taylor says another crew will come with a machine to grind them up. "What do we get for the eight trees cut?" Cummings continues. Taylor gives her a telephone number for inquiries about the Wal-Mart voucher.

As Taylor heads toward the street, Cummings asks her why an orange tree in her neighbors' yard isn't being cut. A large white dog is chained to the trunk. "It hasn't been inspected yet," Taylor admits. "We have to follow the list." Taylor gives the Asplundh crew the next address on a list drawn up by planners in the Plantation office. She hops in her white pickup truck and follows the Asplundh workers, who ride in two vehicles. When the cutters reach the property, they find the trees have already been cut. They groan because this happens a lot. "It's embarrassing," says Jorge Portillo, one of the Asplundh employees. Taylor suspects the residents disposed of the trees, which is a no-no under the quarantine. Or another cutting crew was already there.

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