From: Cain Burdeau, Associated Press
Published December 14, 2005 12:00 AM

Katrina Strangles Louisiana's Cherished Citrus Industry

HOMEPLACE, Louisiana — Citrus growers in southern Louisiana fear they may never be able to plant trees again because of the salt left behind by Hurricane Katrina's flood waters.


"It's hard to say what you're going to do," said Patty Vogt, 51, her rows of 4,000 dead citrus trees falling away behind her. "You don't know what's what."


She said soil tests have shown salt concentrations at 9,000 parts per million on her property, compared with about 2,000 parts per million before the storm.


Even before Katrina hit on Aug. 29, salt was a problem in south Louisiana because of the slow encroachment of the Gulf of Mexico as marsh land eroded. After Katrina's floods, an eerie white salt line lay across rows of trees in many groves.


The Louisiana citrus industry is concentrated south of New Orleans in Plaquemines Parish. Unlike the major citrus industries in Florida and California, Louisiana's is a beloved cottage industry. City dwellers make a yearly pilgrimage down Louisiana Highway 23 to stock up at the family-run fruit stands selling oranges and satsumas.


"We have the best fruit around," county agent Alan Vaughn said. "We pick them fresh and sell them fresh."


But Katrina knocked out 80 percent of the production down river from New Orleans. The losses for the US$7 million (euro5.9 million) industry come about 40 years after hurricanes Betsy and Camille tore apart a once-vibrant citrus industry that spread across the Louisiana coast. Acreage was cut to about 1,500 (600 hectares) from 4,000 (1,600 hectares) and plans to build juice factories were shelved after those deadly storms.


Rebuilding, Vaughn said, might be impossible for many farmers, especially the small ones who grew a couple of acres to help pay the mortgage or college tuition for the children.


"This took out the shed, the packing house, the tractor," Vaughn said.


The damage is everywhere. It did not spare Vaughn's workplace -- the Citrus Research Station run by Louisiana State University's AgCenter.


Vaughn stopped and poked his black boot at a crab lying in the grove, carried in by the floods. "Now that's unusual," he said.


Lots of things are unusual these days. Stray cows and elk from nearby farms were grazing in the citrus station's groves after Katrina. A cornet in its case, fire extinguishers, toys, buoys and life jackets were among the debris on the station's rows of pineapple oranges, blood oranges, pomelos and brown select satsumas.


Even if the groves can be cleansed of salt, Vaughn said it takes four years for newly planted citrus trees to produce fruit. In the meantime, farm suppliers, nurseries throughout Louisiana and thousands of fruit pickers will be affected.


Source: Associated Press


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