Florida’s orange crop fell 132,363 acres to 441,628 acres between 1984 and 2015, a precipitous decline that has some worrying about the future of Florida’s signature crop.
The encroachment of growth accounts for some of the decline, but freezes and disease, particularly canker and greening, have taken a huge toll.
“There is no question that it poses an existential threat,” Lisa Lochridge, director of public affairs for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, said of greening, an incurable bacterial disease that often kills trees within a few years.
But growers and others in the industry say don’t write that obituary yet.
Greening arrived in Manatee County about 2005 and is believed to afflict every commercial grove in Florida.
The Bradenton area, which gave birth to the orange juice industry with Tropicana and is the ninth-leading producer of citrus in Florida, is vitally interested in greening and other threats.
Gary Bradshaw, president of SMR Farms, says that Lakewood Ranch has 965 acres of citrus, down from a high of 1,400 acres. Some of that citrus land was lost to development and some has been lost to disease.
“It’s not a secret, the effect of greening has been felt by a majority of growers,” Bradshaw said. “Everybody has experienced some degree of it. It’s another curveball that growers are being thrown.”
It’s hard, but this is the signature crop of Florida and we are not going down without a fight.
Gary Bradshaw, president of SMR Farms
Recognizing the severity of the threat, the citrus industry, state and federal governments have invested more than $230 million in research during the past decade to fight greening.
“The resources that are being devoted to research and getting on top of citrus greening are significant,” Lochridge said.
Even though a silver bullet has not been found to cure greening, researchers have developed incremental countermeasures to help prolong the life of trees.
Those include more frequent spoon feeding of smaller doses of fertilizer directly to tree roots, and more aggressively attacking the insect that spreads the greening bacterium, the Asian citrus psyllid population.
“Our production cost is up 27 percent in recent years,” Bradshaw said. “It’s hard, but this is the signature crop of Florida and we are not going down without a fight.”
Even with its challenges, oranges remain Florida’s No. 1 crop with a value of $1.24 billion, according to the most recent figures available from the Florida Agricultural Statistics Service. Oranges are followed by sugarcane with a value of $677 million, tomatoes at $437 million and bell peppers at $164 million.
Manatee County’s 18,000 acres in groves produce $39 million in annual revenue, said Samanatha Kennedy, Manatee County extension director.
Bradshaw is encouraged that researchers are coming up with new, more greening-resistant varitiies of root stock.
“A lot of orange producers are pushing new root stock as fast as possible. It’s easier to control greening on smaller trees with smaller canopies,” he said.
When greening first arrived in Florida, growers did not recognize it immediately, because it attacks the root system. Later on, the disease is not so invisible because it starts producing yellowing leaves and misshapen fruit.
“We tried to tread water until they come up with a cure,” Bradshaw said.
It’s a concern shared by all Florida growers, who lost $3 billion in revenue since 2006, the Herald previously reported.
In 2000, Florida had about 750,000 acres in citrus. That has fallen 250,000 acres to 500,000.
Citrus continues to employ 76,000 people with a $9 billion economic impact.
“We are not just going to roll over,” Bradshaw said.
Citrus growers are a resilient group facing a daunting challenge, Lochridge said.
“The disease has changed our industry in ways that can’t be turned back, but everyone is remaining optimistic,” she said.
Florida’s top citrus counties
Polk - 80,488 acres
DeSoto - 66,104 acres
Hendry - 64,063 acres
Highlands - 58,287 acres
Hardee - 47,069 acres
Collier - 29,893 acres
St. Lucie - 29,559 acres
Indian River - 29,500 acres
Manatee - 16,974 acres
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Agriculture
Production value of Florida products
Oranges - $1.24 billion
Sugarcane - $677 million
Tomatoes -$437 million
Bell peppers - $164 million
Sweet corn - $130 million
Grapefruit - $117 million
Watermelons - $80 million
Snap beans - $77 million
Squash - $41 million
Cucumbers - $39 million
Tangerines - $48 million
SOURCE: Florida Agricultural Statistics Service