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
Xanthomonas, we presume?
Steve Satterwhite
Xanthomonas, we presume?
After a day of patrols, anticanker forces retreat to bases in Plantation, Homestead, and (pictured) Miami-Dade
Steve Satterwhite
After a day of patrols, anticanker forces retreat to bases in Plantation, Homestead, and (pictured) Miami-Dade
Not heat nor humidity nor scream nor dog keeps inspector Delirus from accomplishing his canker course
Steve Satterwhite
Not heat nor humidity nor scream nor dog keeps inspector Delirus from accomplishing his canker course
State workers oversee private-sector butchers who can't wait to turn your trees into mulch
Steve Satterwhite
State workers oversee private-sector butchers who can't wait to turn your trees into mulch

"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.

Xanthomonas axonopodis did not pop up again until the mid-'80s. That time it posed a more substantial threat. The Sunshine State's population had swelled and along with it the likelihood that people and machines would inadvertently spread the bacteria. Moreover harvesting orange and grapefruit trees had bloomed into a multibillion-dollar industry that was concentrated in large Central Florida groves. Plant pathologists stumbled onto the pathogen in the Sebring area northwest of Lake Okeechobee while looking for another, far less virulent strain. They traced the origin of the outbreak to a citrus inspector's home. "Apparently he had been doing some kind of experiments in his yard or something," Timmer recounts. "And it spread to a grove." Grove owner Ed Smoke promptly destroyed 400 acres of trees. "He just burned the whole thing," Timmer adds. "The inspector had passed away before they ever found the canker there. So he was off the hook."

For several years in the '80s, Timmer studied citrus canker in northeastern Argentina, where the disease has been endemic for about 25 years. Citrus growers there and in southern Brazil must routinely spray their groves with copper compounds that suppress the disease. They also have difficulty exporting the fruit to nations with tight agricultural inspections.

The Floridian outbreaks of the mid-'80s were confined to a few groves in rural areas in the central part of the state. Authorities took swift action. Basing its decision on South American research, the state defined all citrus trees within 125 feet of an infected specimen as exposed and promptly burned them. Disaster was again averted.

But the canker returned in the fall of 1995. Unfortunately this time it was detected in a yard near Galloway Road and West Flagler Street, west of Miami International Airport, where the chances of it spreading were high. "That was the start of this nightmare," recalls Lodyga. Scientists suspect the infected plant arrived from Brazil or Argentina. With a $2.2 million budget and 120 employees, the state revived its citrus canker­ eradication program and imposed a quarantine on a 14-square-mile area encompassing Westchester and Sweetwater. Several dozen inspectors began to search for more canker in Miami-Dade and Broward. In 1996 officials informed legislators of the danger, but they appropriated only a million dollars for the effort. The following year they approved another three million.

That was not enough to finance the widespread inspections and removals required to stop the spread. Many legislators remained either ignorant of the impending catastrophe or unconcerned; some argued over who should foot the bill. In 1997 Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford tangled with Lawton Chiles when the then governor proposed forcing the citrus industry to tap into an emergency fund held by growers. That year the decision-makers were preoccupied with a more obvious problem: Mediterranean fruit flies, which burrow into fruit and vegetables and deposit larvae. In 1997 and 1998, the state spent $32 million dropping insecticides from airplanes onto farms and groves from Tampa to Orlando. The program saved millions of dollars in crops. Meanwhile rains and high winds were propelling airborne bacteria throughout South Florida. Beginning in 1997 growers in Collier, Hendry, Hillsborough, and Manatee counties reported outbreaks. Workers quickly destroyed hundreds of acres of trees.

Litigious citizens also hampered the effort. Miami lawyer John Ruiz filed a class-action lawsuit in October 1997 on behalf of a group of homeowners who wanted compensation for their hacked-up trees. A state judge agreed and barred the agriculture department from cutting down exposed trees (although workers could still chop infected trees). It wasn't until April 1999 that a Third District Court of Appeal panel overturned the ruling, saying trees exposed to the bacteria had no value. But by then the canker forces had lost 18 months. Another summer of thunderstorms and hurricanes had spread the disease even more.

In fact the bacteria were circulating more rapidly than most scientists expected. Last fall a U.S. Department of Agriculture pathologist, Tim Gottwald, discovered that, in Florida's hot, humid, and windy conditions, Xanthomonas axonopodis sometimes travels several thousand feet by air. The state threw out the 125-foot rule and established a new distance. Trees within 1900 feet, or roughly one square block, would be considered exposed.

While Mother Nature took major action, legislative bodies did not. "There wasn't enough money to get the thing under control," laments Carlos Balerdi, a tropical fruit crops specialist at the Miami-Dade Cooperative Extension Service in Homestead. Balerdi, who relays research and regulations to growers in South Florida, blames legislators in Tallahassee and Washington for not responding swiftly and broadly. "Now it's about four and a half years after the initial infection, and you [finally] see the funding coming," Balerdi chides. "It's too late for this county." Lavern Timmer concludes that society's penchant for reacting to disasters rather than preventing them also was at work. "When the problem doesn't look very big, it's hard to stir up enough interest to generate money," he ruminates. "When it looks like you have impending disaster, it's a lot easier to do that. It's more human nature than anything."

Balerdi also thinks owners of Central Florida's large groves, whom the current eradication is aimed at protecting, should have pressured public officials sooner. "They did not realize it was a very serious problem for them," Balerdi observes. "By the time they reacted, it was getting very close to them." In late May pathologists discovered new canker infections in a Palm Beach County lime operation, the closest outbreak yet to the Indian River groves, which are among the world's biggest suppliers of grapefruit. The canker police action has not gone well. With the epidemic swirling out of control more than four and a half years after the initial detection, authorities finally intensified the operation in February when Gov. Jeb Bush declared Miami-Dade and Broward state disaster areas. U.S. Department of Agriculture secretary Dan Glickman added the word federal to that designation a month later. And in April, Glickman's Sunshine State counterpart Bob Crawford widened the quarantine to include an area from Florida City to the Palm Beach County line and from the Naples area to north of Tampa. Then directors of the state's canker-eradication program finally chucked an antiquated method they had used to map exposed and infected trees. ("It was an administrative nightmare," according to one USDA official.) They began instituting the Incident Command System (ICS), a strategy the USDA Forest Service uses to battle catastrophic wildfires. Under the ICS, planners assign supervisors to a six-square-mile area (known as a "range" on land-survey maps). One supervisor manages several strike-team leaders, each of whom in turn oversees about a dozen inspectors. In all about a thousand of these surveyors are on the streets. Had the bacterial outbreaks been fires, Miami-Dade County would probably be burned to a crisp. Yet eradication workers, most of whom receive about $10 per hour and come from diverse backgrounds, press on. "We must be able to adapt and overcome whatever obstacles that we face," writes incident commander David Utley in his employee newsletter Canker Anchor, "to accomplish the mission of removing approximately 750,000 to a million citrus trees over the next year."

Utley's chief spokesman, Richard Miranda, who spent most of the '90s serving with U.S. Army special operations forces, says only "an act of God" will prevent completion of the task. "We are in a state of emergency down here," he says.

And so, on a sweltering morning in May, division supervisor Andres Piñero, age 23, drives a state-owned white pickup truck from Plantation headquarters to his staging area: a Winn-Dixie supermarket parking lot in Hialeah. Leaders of his eight anticanker inspection units arrive in white vans. They all wear white polo shirts, the citrus canker army uniform. After a 15-minute session to identify their areas of deployment, they are back in their vehicles, fanning out across a residential section of northwest Hialeah. Over the past two weeks, they have located dozens of citrus trees and spray-painted Xs on them (yellow for exposed and red for infected); all will have to be cut down. Their only weapon: a state law that allows them to enter yards without permission and makes impeding their work a misdemeanor. Their only olive branch: a $100 voucher that residents who lose trees can use at Wal-Mart.

By midmorning Miladis Marichal and her 13 inspectors are in the vicinity of West 70th Street and 31st Avenue. Joshua Delirus, a 24-year-old former supermarket stockman, is paired with Isis Travieso, a 32-year-old ex­medical clerk. Both have been on the frontlines for six months. Already this morning they have documented two instances of what is known in official nomenclature as owner refusal. Complying with a time-consuming protocol, they notified their supervisor, Marichal, who contacted Piñero, who called Miami-Dade police. After the cops arrived, the residents quickly acquiesced.

Some citizens pretend they are not home, while others offer far-fetched excuses to keep the inspectors away. "Sometimes people say, "I can't let you in because I'm not the owner,' but they are the owner," Travieso reports. "Or they'll say they can't open the gate because they lost the key." One resident tried to thwart an inspection by insisting it would disturb her dog, which was recovering from surgery.

Other people don't mind losing their trees. Down the street the inspectors find an orange tree in Enrique Gonzalez's back yard. Gonzalez is familiar with the situation; inspectors first came about a year ago. A copyeditor at a Christian publishing house, he's prepared to sacrifice his foliage for the greater good but hopes he'll be compensated. "If they pay me, it's all the same to me," he says.

Delirus and Travieso trudge up the walkway of a small house on West 70th Terrace. Delirus has his cell phone clipped to a cloth hoop on his baggy blue jeans. Travieso sports off-white slacks and running shoes. "Buenos días, Departamento de Agricultura," she sings out languidly in the 95-degree heat. "Good morning, Florida Department of Agriculture." No one responds to several knocks on the door. Delirus walks over to a gate in a chainlink fence. It is locked. He whistles to make sure a dog isn't waiting in the back yard. None barks, so he nimbly jumps over the barrier. He quickly returns and reports the property has no citrus tree.

After lunch at a nearby McDonald's, Marichal's team is back on the streets for a tense afternoon. A series of knocks and shouts at a house on NW 30th Avenue goes unanswered, so Delirus shoves aside a bag of cement that is holding a wooden gate shut and follows Travieso to a section of yard running along one side of the home. Suddenly a window slides open.

"What are you doing!" screams an irate woman in Spanish. "Who said you could come in here?" Travieso tries to explain, but the tirade continues. "You don't have the right to enter a property. You have to inform someone first."

"Yes, ma'am, that's why we knocked several times," Travieso responds calmly.

"I was in the bathroom! I didn't hear anything!"

Travieso apologizes and offers her a form that outlines how to file a complaint.

"I don't want any form," the woman replies and slams the window shut. Meanwhile Delirus has discovered a citrus seedling along the wood plank fence. He gives it a blast of yellow spray paint.

Nearby an elderly woman tells two other inspectors they cannot walk into her back yard. The inspectors call Marichal, and soon two cops show up. They persuade the cantankerous senior to yield.

Homeowner obstinacy is not the only problem multiplied by the ever-expanding area of infection. So are the chances that inspectors will not spot signs of infection. "If symptoms occur in the tops of trees, it's easy to miss them," notes Lavern Timmer of the CREC. "It's kind of a needle-in-a-haystack thing." It is also difficult to catch low levels of disease, he adds. "The [problem] is trying to detect it with so many trees scattered around and so many residences and citrus groves affected," he continues. "This year they got a lot more funding, so they've got a lot more people than they've had in the past. If they could have done what they are doing now several years ago, this thing never would have gotten to the point it's gotten to. It's just hard to have enough people."Another problem is that U.S. Department of Agriculture enforcement officer Maria Amaya and her comrades in the agency's plant protection and quarantine division are having trouble getting through to landscaping companies and governments. As of mid-June authorities in Hialeah, the City of Miami, Miami-Dade County, and others have yet to sign an agreement to cooperate with federal and state agriculture officers and follow quarantine rules. The quarantine is aimed at prohibiting people from taking citrus trees or parts of them, including fruit, out of the area. Landscapers, gardeners, and anyone else who comes in contact with the trees are supposed to disinfect themselves and their equipment afterward. But many remain ignorant or are pretending the rules don't exist in order to save money. One of Miami's biggest landscaping companies is flagrantly violating the quarantine, Amaya says, but she declines to identify the firm. She recalls that authorities escorted one of the company's crews out of a Broward municipality for refusing to comply with the regulations. Violators are subject to a wide range of fines. She declined to comment further.

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.

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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