Canker Sore

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

When they encounter the same thing at the next two addresses on Taylor's list, the crew grows restless. Portillo thinks the operation would be far more effective if the cutters moved from yard to yard, removing citrus trees as soon as they are found. Some scientists also favor this approach, but so far agricultural officials prefer the current, more gradual method. "They are trying to maintain the public's favor," says Bob McMillan, a University of Florida pathologist. "In our day and age, we're caught between a rock and a hard place." In addition a state law requires a five-day notification period before cutting can begin on someone's property.

Indeed state officials have made a priority of teaching their troops to be sensitive to the public. "Most residents are very attached to their trees and extremely upset about having to lose them," writes public information director Richard Miranda in the Canker Anchor. "Some planted those trees ten, fifteen, even twenty years ago and consider those trees part of the family. Taking these emotions into consideration in our daily dealings with the public makes our jobs a lot easier." State workers offer examples of how the anticanker incursions slice into tree owners' psyches. One employee observed a widow videotape the dismemberment of a tree planted by her dear departed husband. Another owner wrapped herself around the trunk of her tree when the cutting crew arrived. She moved when the chain saws started up.

Finally, at another property, Taylor and her Asplundh team find some action. A heavyset woman watches from a window as the workers dispatch two trees at opposite sides of her back yard. They drag the spoils out to the edge of the street and pile them next to an old blue Buick sedan. "Where it get sick?" asks a young man with a Caribbean lilt. "You say it has cancer or something?"

"Canker," Taylor corrects and shows him an infected leaf.

"All right, thanks," he replies sadly.

Other residents who have yet to hear the sickening roar of the chain saws in their back yards have a false illusion that their trees are immune. On a recent day in Coral Gables, inspectors Grisel Babea and Montel Howard found Emilio Rives at home. The energetic 80-year-old retired doctor was happy to give the inspectors a tour of the ten citrus trees in his yard. Several tangerine and orange trees, which he planted ten years ago, shade the lawn. There also is a small fountain pool there, which features a statue of a dolphin spitting a stream of water into it. More citrus trees line the yard along one side of his house. "I don't think they are infected," Rives says, noting agriculture employees visited about a year ago. Ten minutes later the inspectors bid the talkative Rives farewell. Out on the street Babea opens her hand and shows a small leaf. It has canker spots. "I couldn't tell him," she confesses. "Most likely all ten of them will have to go."Increasingly the workers are heading north into Broward and onto the property of people like Maria and Lawrence Austin. By noon on that fateful day, the chain saw team buzzing away in the Austins' back yard has dismembered the couple's once bountiful 24-year-old beauty. Several large limbs, dozens of green unripened grapefruit, and leaves lay scattered on the grass. The four female inspectors, two of whom are trainees, stand nearby, next to the clothesline, watching and trying to converse over the hellish noise. Across the yard in the shade of a mango tree near the canal's edge, Maria and Lawrence morosely monitor the mutilation.

The machines fall silent, and Mark Fagan approaches. "They are going to take their state-mandated break," he informs the couple. "They'll be in front of your house, and then they'll return to finish cutting down your tree." He walks off. Maria has calmed down but is still sour. "I no think this is a free country." She and Lawrence, a recently laid off construction worker, head inside to eat.

Three and a half hours later, the four-man cutting crew, the four inspectors, and Fagan are gone. So is the tree, its branches dragged to the street and devoured by a machine that vomits wood chips into a covered dump truck. Also departed: the Austins' ten-foot navel orange tree and another lemon shrub. But four other workers -- two stump grinders and their two state supervisors who arrived in the midafternoon -- remain. One worker pushes a machine fitted with a rotary blade into a huge stump left at the scene of the grapefruit tree massacre. By 4:30 p.m. he will still not be done. They will have to return on Monday to finish the job.

Lawrence doesn't believe the tree had canker, even though one of the agriculture inspectors showed him an infected leaf. "It doesn't have to be canker," he submits. "It could be bugs or something."

"They just want us to buy the citrus from the groves!" growls Maria.

"It's to make their sales go higher," Lawrence echoes. "So everybody has to buy their citrus from them."

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