Florida Oranges, State Symbol, Remain in Life-Death Struggle
Around the State
Until last year, few Floridians outside the agriculture belt realized the state's $9 billion citrus industry -- responsible for 76,000 jobs -- was fighting for its life against a bacterial disease with no cure.
2013 was the first time deadly citrus greening was found in all 32 counties where the fruit is grown. But the problem is, in spite of the many programs and money spent on research to eradicate the disease, crop yields and the size of fruit in Florida groves in 2014 are even smaller than the year before.
Those in the industry claim Florida citrus production "is at its lowest level in 24 years," largely, if not totally, due to the greening bacteria.
"In its heyday, Florida was harvesting 250,000 cartons of oranges," said Erin Gillespie, press secretary at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. "That kind of puts it in perspective, and it's all due to citrus greening."
Scientists believe citrus greening -- also known by its Chinese name, huanglongbing -- was introduced to Florida probably through the Port of Miami. It is spread by a vector called the Asian citrus psyllid -- an insect no larger than the head of a pin. Psyllids were first detected in a Broward County garden in 1998 and spread to 31 other counties within two years. The Asian strain of the bacteria was discovered in 2005 just south of Miami.
Infected trees produce misshapen, unmarketable and bitter fruit. Over time, it inhibits the tree’s ability to produce fruit at all. Infected trees usually die in three to five years.
The only way to control the disease is to remove the tree.
Researchers estimate that more than half of Florida’s citrus groves are infected.
One of those groves belongs to Rep. Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, a fourth-generation grower, whom Jeb Bush appointed to the Florida Citrus Commission in 2005. Albritton served as the commission's 2007-2010 chairman.
"You have no idea how heartbreaking it is for me to drive through our once-healthy trees and see them weak and yellow and dying," Albritton told Sunshine State News Friday.
"If somebody had told me a decade ago that the Florida citrus industry could be extinct in my lifetime, I would have said they were crazy," he said. "But, I'm telling you, we're in real trouble. Citrus production is at its lowest level in 24 years."
Albritton emphasized the scope of the problem. "This isn't about the industry fighting to make a profit," he said. "It's about us fighting for survival. Remember, citrus isn't just a crop in Florida, it's part of our character. It's a big part of our economy, our culture and our history. It's part of who we are."
The high cost of spraying to kill off some of the psyllids is pushing some growers to the financial brink. The average cost of producing an acre of oranges is $1,800, nearly double what it cost in 1995.
"We believe we are at a crossroads this year,” said Michael Sparks, chief executive of the trade association Florida Citrus Mutual. Banks are watching closely to see if growers can produce enough citrus to repay their debts.
“The small growers are saying, ‘Should I continue to invest?’” Sparks said. “The citrus industry is built on the backs of smaller growers. In the state of Florida, we have 135,000 acres that have been abandoned.”
Said Albritton, "I can show you growers putting up fences around their groves and filling them with cows. They've had to give up on citrus."
He said the disease is now a major world problem, devastating trees and fruit in other citrus nations such as China, and the largest citrus producer in the world, Brazil. Greening has also been discovered in Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Arizona and California.
Albritton has introduced a House Memorial, HM 1427, urging federal support for Florida’s fight against citrus greening. It's one of the few bills in the House this session with more than 50 sponsors. And it cleared its only two committee stops without a peep of opposition. (Read the Memorial in the attachment at the end of this story.)
According to the bill, the disease has caused $4.5 billion in economic damages since its discovery in 2005, and it has cost the state an estimated 8,200 jobs.
At this moment, Florida is getting $5.4 million under the federal farm bill to battle pests, while the House and Senate have submitted different spending proposals.
Adam Putnam, commissioner of agriculture, announced earlier in the month that the state will receive federal funding to deal with pests like the giant African land snail, and with citrus greening, too. Last year he and the Coca-Cola Co. announced a $2 billion investment to plant 25,000 acres of new orange trees in partnership with Cutrale Citrus Juices and Peace River Citrus Products.
The federal dollars will be in addition to proposed state spending included in 2014-2015 House and Senate budgets that remain miles apart.
The House has proposed $13.7 million for citrus greening response, which includes $4 million for research, $7.2 million for the citrus health response program and $2 million for the citrus repository and budwood labs. The budget conference committees are expected to begin meeting Monday.
Florida’s thousands of growers have moved aggressively against the disease. They self-imposed a tax and over the last six years lashed out $60 million to create a research foundation to eradicate greening.
"A lot of industries go to Washington and ask for money," said Albritton. "The Florida citrus industry doesn't do that. We tax every box of fruit and have since 1935 so we can have a viable marketing program. Now we've chosen to take that money from marketing and put it into research."
Reach Nancy Smith at email@example.com or at 228-282-2423.