AVON PARK -- Florida's citrus industry is grappling with the most serious threat in its history: a bacterial disease with no cure that has infected all 32 of the state's citrus-growing counties.
Although the disease, citrus greening, was first spotted in Florida in 2005, this year's losses from it are by far the most extensive. While the bacteria, which causes fruit to turn bitter and drop from the trees when still unripe, affects all citrus fruits, it has been most devastating to oranges, the largest crop. So many have been affected that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has downgraded its crop estimates five months in a row, an extraordinary move, analysts said.
With the harvest not yet over, orange production has already decreased 10 percent from the initial estimate, a major swing, they said.
"The long and short of it is that the industry that made Florida, that is synonymous with Florida, that is a staple on every American breakfast table, is totally threatened," said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who helped obtain $11 million in federal money for research to fight the disease. "If we don't find a cure, it will eliminate the citrus industry."
The relentless migration of the disease from southern to northern Florida -- and beyond -- has deepened concerns this year
among orange juice processors, investors, growers and lawmakers. Florida is the second-largest producer of orange juice in the world, behind Brazil, and the state's $9 billion citrus industry is a major economic force, contributing 76,000 jobs.
The industry, lashed over the years by canker disease, hard freezes and multiple hurricanes, is no stranger to hardship. But citrus greening is by far the most worrisome.
The disease, which can lie dormant for two to five years, is spread by an insect no larger than the head of a pin, the Asian citrus psyllid. It snacks on citrus trees, depositing bacteria that gradually starves trees of nutrients. Psyllids fly from tree to tree, leaving a trail of infection.
Concerted efforts by growers and millions of dollars spent on research to fight the disease have so far failed, growers and scientists said. The situation was worsened this season by an unusual weather pattern, including a dry winter, growers said.
"We have got a real big problem," said Vic Story, a lifelong citrus grower and the head of The Story Companies, which owns 2,000 acres of groves in Central Florida and manages an additional 3,000 acres, all of which are affected at varying levels. "It's definitely the biggest threat in my lifetime, and I'm 68. This is a tree killer."
Before this year, the losses and increased costs of fighting the disease had already taken a toll on Florida's citrus industry, which has been in decline for 15 years. In a 2012 report, University of Florida agricultural analysts concluded that between 2006 and 2012, citrus greening cost Florida's economy $4.5 billion and 8,000 jobs.
Some orange packers and small and midsize growers have sold their groves, razed them for development, or simply abandoned them. Others have postponed replanting lost trees, which take five years to mature, until they know whether a cure will be found. Many more, including the largest growers, are doing what they can to survive; they say they are optimistic they can hold on long enough for researchers to find a treatment.
"This year was a real kick in the gut," said Adam Putnam, Florida's agriculture commissioner and a former congressman, whose family owns citrus groves. "It is now everywhere, and it's just as bad as the doomsayers said it would be."
But there was good news this week, too. Coca-Cola announced it would spend $2 billion to plant 25,000 acres of new orange groves. The company, which owns Minute Maid and the Simply juice brands, will buy fruit from two growers in Florida -- one local and the other a Brazilian company that has invested in the state.
"To see such a dominant player in the beverage market double down on the future of orange juice in Florida is a real morale boost to the industry and a sign they have confidence we will find a cure for greening," Putnam said.
Across the Wheeler Farms groves in Avon Park and beyond, the evidence of greening is obvious on some trees. Leaves turn yellow, then fall off, leaving behind sparse foliage. That is often the beginning of the end.
The psyllids are thought to have arrived through the Port of Miami a decade ago, scientists said. And while the bacteria does not harm humans, it devastates trees, leaving behind bitter, misshapen oranges.
Greening has crippled citrus production around the world, including in Asia and Africa, researchers at the University of Florida said. A decade ago, psyllids were discovered in Brazil, which, with its abundant rural land, has tried to outrun the disease by removing countless trees and planting new acres.
Aware of the potential consequences, Florida's thousands of growers have aggressively moved to curtail its spread. They have spent $60 million over six years, money raised mostly from a self-imposed tax, to create a research foundation seeking to eradicate greening. The federal Department of Agriculture also has dedicated millions of dollars to the effort.
More money is coming. The Florida Legislature this month approved $8 million toward greening research, a record sum. And Nelson is pushing a bill in Congress to set up a research trust fund using money from a tariff on imported orange juice.
Florida is no longer alone in its battle against greening. The disease has spread to Texas, California and Arizona, where officials are anxiously watching developments in Florida. They are also joining the fight to speed up research.
"It's worrisome that we are still three to five years away, even if we find a silver bullet," said Mark Wheeler, a grower and chief financial officer of Wheeler Farms, which owns 2,500 acres. "We are to the point now that to stay alive in this type of environment you have to be on top of it 24/7."
As is, he said, some growers can lose 30 to 40 percent of what they pick in a given year.
Researchers are working on several tracks, among them hindering the insect's reproductive cycle or its ability to transmit the disease, and developing resistant trees. But they are also advising growers on short-term options.
"Now there is a real sense of urgency," said Michael W. Sparks, the chief executive officer of Florida Citrus Mutual, a trade organization for growers. "We are not doing research to publish a paper but research we can get on the back of a tractor."
In Florida, growers have had to transform how they raise orange and grapefruit trees, a shift that has more than doubled their costs over the past decade.
Baby citrus trees must now be raised in greenhouses before they can be transplanted. And most growers douse their groves with a more powerful cocktail of nutrients and spray insecticide more frequently, which has helped slow the disease's progress. At first, they tried removing acres of full-grown, fruit-bearing trees in the hopes of eradicating the disease. That failed because psyllids simply flew over from neighboring groves that were either abandoned or not following the same costly regimen of fertilizer and insecticide.
James Graham, a professor of soil microbiology at the University of Florida who works with the grower-funded Citrus Research and Education Center, said next year's harvest would be crucial. It will show whether this year's statewide early fruit drop was an aberration -- a bad combination of quirky weather and greening -- or proof that the disease is truly entrenched.
Story, for one, is not giving up. He is scooping up groves that are for sale and plans on planting 300 new acres.
"We think we can do it; we know we can do it," he said. "We just need somebody to figure out how we can kill this bacteria in these trees."