When life hands you a lemon tree, the USDA takes it away! And don't even think of making lemonade with any more trees – they'll take those too.
A special HFA interview with Bridget Donovan, aka “The Lemon Tree Lady,” USDA's Most Wanted. Or rather, her little beloved lemon tree was. Last week, we reported the story of the USDA demanding her tree three years after a quarantine, but the real USDA mode of operation is in the details below – we can't make this stuff up!
Did you know she was facing fines up to $60,000 and a federal raid if she did not comply? (Remember the USDA's $4 million dollar bunnies?) They invaded her privacy, tracked her down through her purchases, and sternly warned they would get that tree one way or another. It appears she is on a “citrus watch list.”
Please read the details below – it will help you if you ever face such a situation. Bridget was no pushover – she did her very best to keep her tree and we wanted to know more. The USDA knows that most people will crumble under such threats and don't have the funds to fight. And just how far is someone willing to go over a lemon tree?
Thanks to “The Lemon Tree Lady,” we know that scores of others face similar situations and that the USDA spies on our purchases, yards, and even into windows! This is by their own admission. Find out below what happened when people purchased new lemon trees that were compliant.
Most of our readers will detect that this was not an issue of environmental safety – her personal tree was healthy and posed no danger. The USDA wouldn't even allow for that – they destroyed it and disrupted Bridget's life. This is a matter of force and personal property. They think they have the authority to watch and revisit people to try to catch them in a lie (for instance, if they say their trees died).
Does anyone know of the right department to contact about this? Please share this incredible story with friends and family. All emphasis below is HFA's.
Special thanks to Bridget for graciously sharing her story with us! Please leave her some kind words and support below.
So what happened? What exactly did the USDA want from you? Why was your lemon tree on a terrorist hit list?
I will start from the beginning.
Three years ago, I read an article in the local newspaper about Meyer Lemon Trees. It said how easy they were to grow inside, and how they brightened up the winters with sweet smelling flowers and fruit. I love gardening, my young niece shares my love of gardening, so it seemed the perfect thing to buy. I looked online, and found the company, meyerlemontree.com. It listed the states they could not ship to, and since Wisconsin was not one of them, I felt safe in ordering. It was clearly a big company, and I did not in a million years think anything was wrong in buying from them.
The tree arrived in great shape, and it just took off. My whole family enjoyed the flowers and the sweet smell, and it was very exciting to watch the lemons as they grew. I spent a lot of time on this tree. It clearly paid off because it was a very healthy tree. Then, three years later, out of the blue, I received a letter from the USDA.
It Included a flyer stating that my tree would be seized, I would not be compensated by the government, and that it would be destroyed. The fact sheet also said they verified, with federal law enforcement databases, that I was at the current address. It went on to state that while I would not face any penalties “at this point” if I were found to be in possession of regulated citrus again, I could face a fine of $1100 to $60,000. The letter asked me to call the agent from the USDA to discuss this matter. It stated the issue was with citrus greening and citrus canker.
I truly thought this was a joke, so I looked it up online. I was shocked to discover how many other people had had their trees seized, and many without any warning. The feds just showed up at their doors.
One woman had written that hers was seized, and then she was told by the USDA the replacement tree offered by the company was compliant. Then the USDA turned around and seized that, too. I bring this up because I mentioned it to the USDA officer when I spoke with her (more on that in a moment).
Since this letter arrived on a Saturday, I gave much thought as to what to do. I thought about trying to take it to a friend's house. I had spent a lot of time and money on this tree, and it upset me that the government could just tell me they were taking it.
However, the tree required a fair amount of attention, and I didn't want to burden someone else with that, or stick them in the middle of this. I was very angry and upset. I have never had any contact with the federal government, other than the every day things like paying taxes and such, and could not believe a tree purchased legally, three years ago, would elicit this sort of action. I thought about ignoring the letter, but based on others' experience of having them show up announced, I knew that wouldn't work, either.
I called the agent Monday, and she explained they had to seize the tree because the company obtained it from a vendor that had gotten it from Florida. However, I never did get a straight answer as to when/if all parts of Florida are quarantined, and how we are to know when they deem that to be. She said they seized my information from the company that sold this tree, and were tracking everyone down. I told her if this was such a threat, I didn't understand what took three years.
What do you think of the USDA waiting 3 years after the quarantine to demand it back?
That is really what ticks me off the most – it's not like this tree just arrived, and I was contacted about a problem. This is three years later. If the government thought this was such a risk, it's doesn't say much that it took them three years to do anything about it. This officer stated that I could get a replacement tree from the company.
At that point I brought up that I had read that other people had done that, had been assured those were “compliant” trees, and then they were seized. This agent did admit that happened.
I mentioned the fine I was threatened with, and she said it was on a case by case basis, and that they really weren't going after the consumer. I asked if I got the replacement tree, how was I to know the feds wouldn't be knocking on my door again in three years, and she said she didn't know what to tell me. I voiced my disgust with the way in which this flyer was written, and she said it was done by the national USDA PR people and she had no control over that.
I asked if they had a warrant in order to obtain this tree, and she said no.
I asked what would happen if I declined to give it up, and she said no one had ever done that before and she would have to talk to her supervisor. I asked her to do so.
I called back the next day, and she told me that while they were hoping I would voluntarily give up the tree, it wasn't a choice, it was an order.
I again asked what would happen, and she said she would have someone call me back. A supervisor did, and she told me that they were going to get the tree one or way or the other, and if I refused, they would quarantine it, obtain a warrant, and bring federal law enforcement officers to my house to take the tree.
She told me 2-3 times that If that tree disappeared while it was under quarantine I would be in violation.
What happens if someone informs the USDA that the tree has died – what do they do?
When I pressed her about the time I had had this tree, and what they did if other people said theirs had died, she told me they made repeat visits back, “surveyed” yards, and spotted many in peoples' front hallways. She told me they wanted this wrapped up that week, and that if I was going to refuse, I had to tell them so they could get going on the quarantine and warrant. Oh, she also mentioned she could count one hand how many times they had to do that sort of thing, as most people relented and gave them their tree.
Did this situation disrupt your life? Did it feel like a violation?
I was so torn. I am not a quitter by nature, but at the same time I did not want my family members to be at home when law enforcement showed up with this warrant to storm in and seize the tree.
I do not have the money, either, to try to fight the government in court (which I did point out to the one agent, that they clearly knew they held up the upper hand). With utter anger I relented, and said I would give it up.
The original agent wouldn't make an appointment after 3:00, so I had to bring the tree to work. She came into my workplace with a red hazmat bag, but my tree was so big and healthy it didn't fit, so she took it in my garbage bag. I did snap a picture of her doing so, which I told her I was going to do. I had also contacted our local newspaper the day before, and they did a story on it.
Did you realize at the time that you were basically threatened with a federal raid if you did not comply? Because, you were…
Yes, I did feel threatened with a federal raid. I think being told they were going to get the tree one way or the other leaves little choice.
I felt utterly violated, angry, and upset. I pay my taxes, I obey the law, and this is how I was treated? I did nothing wrong. I would expect these action toward someone running a drug house, not someone who owned a lemon tree.
I don't know for a fact they had driven by before sending that letter, but it seemed a little odd the supervisor would tell me they “survey” yards looking for the trees.
Do you believe their actions are really motivated by environmental safety?
In my own mind I do not believe they took this tree because of this citrus disease. I am not certainly selfish enough to have wanted to keep a tree if I thought it were a hazard to the nation's citrus crops.
That disease doesn't affect humans or animals, according to the literature they sent me. It causes misshapen fruit and yellow leaves, neither of which my tree had. And even if my tree were sick, it had been here three years – it's a little late for them to be so hysterical over it, especially in the cold climate of Wisconsin.
What did your family and friends think of it? What did they say when you thought you might push harder to keep your tree?
My family and friends were quite shocked. I have heard from quite a number of people who read the article, and it amazes me how afraid people are – they think the government is reading our e-mails, listening to our calls, etc. It is a shame in the land of the free that people have to feel this way.
What would you say to those who stand by the USDA's heavy actions in the name of environmental safety?
And to those who think it's not a big deal, I ask them how they will feel when the government decides to seize something they own and value.
Would you do anything differently if it happened again?
I don't know what what I would do it if I had to do it over again. I would like to think I would push it and demand a warrant as is my right, but I knew the tree was going one way or the other. I pushed and questioned it as best as I did, but in the end, these people, paid with our tax dollars, treated me like a common criminal.
Thanks for asking for the details. Please let me know if you have any other questions.
– No Bridget, THANK YOU