Green disease squeezes citrus farmers in Florida

Palm Beach PostJanuary 29, 2013 

When the citrus tree-killing disease known as greening was detected for the first time in the United States in August 2005 in Homestead, some feared the end was near for Florida's signature industry.

Now, more than seven years later, the apocalypse has not occurred, but the disease that results in bitter, misshapen fruit is said to be present in every grove to some extent. Although no one knows the actual number of infected trees, many place it somewhere between 40 percent and 70 percent.

The citrus industry has undergone a sea change. Production costs are up about 40 percent in many cases, mostly due to the cost of spraying for psyllids, the insects that spread the disease, and to nutritional programs to keep trees as healthy as possible.

Primarily through a grower-funded tax on each box of fruit, the citrus industry has invested $66 million in 129 research projects run by 30 doctoral scientists looking for a solution to the disease, also known as Huanglongbing or HLB.

"We understand the sense of urgency. We are going as fast as we can," said Jude Grosser, a professor of citrus breeding and genetics at the University of Florida Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred. Grosser and others are working to develop disease-resistant trees, but breeding is a slow process.

"You have to pursue all the avenues. You don't know which one the home run is going to come from," said Grosser, who is optimistic a solution will be found.

The industry continues to shrink. The state's commercial citrus acreage has shrunk to 531,493 acres as of the fall of 2012, a 28 percent decline from 748,555 acres in 2004. That's the lowest since the U.S. Department of Agriculture began the survey began in 1966.

This season the USDA has revised the crop forecast downward

twice since October, because the amount of fruit dropping from trees is greater than expected and the worst in more than 40 years. Growers are blaming greening and drought. In October the outlook was for 154 million 90-pound boxes of oranges, but the January estimate predicts a crop of 142 million boxes of oranges.

The grapefruit forecast has dropped to 18 million boxes from 20.3 million.

Tom Spreen, a professor emeritus at the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, said that growers are planting about half the number of new trees they would have planted if there were no greening. "Going forward, the industry will be smaller," Spreen said.

But, Spreen said, growers have come up with a whole new line of defense the doomsayers did not predict, which has allowed it to produce more fruit than it would have.

Young trees are babied in greenhouses to keep out the Asian citrus psyllid, a tiny insect that spreads the greening bacterium from plant to plant. Once they're planted in the groves, the trees are sprayed to keep the psyllid population down.

"The total industry is working diligently to control the psyllid population, but the challenge is, the psyllid in Florida is as prevalent as the mosquito," said Ricke Kress, president of Southern Gardens Citrus, a U.S. Sugar subsidiary south of Clewiston. Southern Gardens owns groves and has the only large orange juice plant in the southern part of the state, producing 80 million to 100 million gallons a year.

Southern Gardens has invested more than $6 million in research. It has planted the fourth generation of trees that contain two spinach genes that provide resistance to greening. The trees are developed in the lab by Erik Mirkov, a Texas AgriLfe Research plant pathologist in Weslaco, Texas.

The genetically modified trees and fruit will have to go through regulatory approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and the USDA. Although more than 80 percent of such crops as corn, soybeans, canola and sugar beets are genetically modified, there's increasing public concern about them.

"We have been meeting with the agencies since 2006. They know exactly what we are doing and how we are doing it," Kress said. "We know we have a disease. We have to find a solution. When we find a solution, we know we will have to go through the regulatory approval process. We will also have to work through the consumer approval process."

Once a disease-resistant tree is available, Kress said, many chemicals being used to control psyllids can be eliminated.

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