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Slim Pickin's

The thousands of farmworkers who arrive in southwest Florida to begin plucking oranges and grapefruits off trees this month may find they have no place to stay: Most of the farmworker housing in Hardee and DeSoto counties was destroyed by Hurricanes Charley and Frances.

For those who can find homes, there may not be work. "We have acres of groves that we won't even go in to harvest," says Steve Sorrells, a second-generation citrus grower who owns Sorrells Brothers in Arcadia. Sorrells says of the 5,000 acres of groves he owns, about 2,000 to 3,000 are damaged. It takes five years to grow a productive citrus tree.

The $9-billion citrus industry is facing $500 million in losses from the storms, and the losses are expected to grow. Many of the surviving trees are waterlogged or are vulnerable to insects because pest-control trucks can't move past fallen trees to spray remaining crops.

Statewide, agricultural losses from the hurricanes total about $3 billion. And though the citrus industry was promised $200 million in federal aid, the largest agricultural industry in Florida had to fight for federal assistance. Florida's $9.9-billion nursery industry sustained about $700 million in damages. Most nurseries are ineligible for aid, and 90% of nursery structures are not insurable.

"We do not traditionally fit within the USDA's emergency disaster programs because we don't grow food, feed or fiber," says Ben Bolusky, executive vice president of the Florida Nursery, Growers & Landscape Association. But in the wake of Hurricanes Charley and Frances, Bolusky and other growers asked top federal officials for assistance. They received about $200 million from the USDA and are working with the White House and the USDA to reform the federal nursery crop insurance program. The USDA also doled out another $300 million for citrus, fruits and vegetable crop losses.

But it may take years for the crops to recover. Citrus, in particular, already had been battered by the popularity of low-carb diets, which helped bring demand down, and by a record crop last year that depressed prices.

"It was pretty bad before the storms hit," says Pat Carlton, a fifth-generation citrus grower in Wauchula who serves on the Florida Citrus Commission. "Now you kind of scratch your head and try to decide what you're going to do."