Citrus Research Investments Yielding Positive Results

Dr. Nian Wang inspects citrus trees
Dr. Nian Wang of UF/IFAS is researching methods to defeat HLB using CRISPR.
Photo courtesy of UF/IFAS

I don’t think anybody can argue the citrus industry’s importance to the state of Florida — both from a sweeping economic and cultural perspective. Despite the scourge of HLB over the past decade, oranges, grapefruit, and specialty fruit create a $10.8 billion annual economic impact while supporting 62,000 jobs.

Citrus farming is a way of life for third, fourth, and fifth generation growers. Families, businesses, and communities rely on citrus’ continued existence.

These facts resonate through the halls of Tallahassee and Washington, DC, as the industry seeks help in the HLB fight. I don’t have space to name all of the elected officials who have unflinchingly lined up to support citrus, but the list is long and impressive.

Through grower assessments and state and federal appropriations, almost $250 million has been invested in citrus research over the past 10 years. Now that’s commitment.

I know growers are restless and see a figure like that and wonder why the heck hasn’t a silver bullet been found. The truth of the matter is that when we started the research push, our knowledge of the disease was very small so we had to build a base of information and data. Science moves like a super tanker when we need a speedboat.

Weapons Check

We are on the cusp of uncovering many more sustainable solutions to add to our toolbox. The Citrus Research & Development Foundation (CRDF), UF/IFAS, and USDA are working collaboratively to mine every avenue from RNAi and CRISPR, to microbes and biotechnology. This is an all-out war in the laboratory.

Growers are now using three bactericide products FireWwall, FireLine, and Mycoshield. During the first season of use, there was a substantial adoption rate. Now in the second season, we are starting to gather year-over-year data. While the treatments are showing improved canopy and leaf appearance, these are only preliminary signs that the treatments are beneficial. We are getting information however; again, tanker versus speedboat. The CRDF is coordinating more than 80 grower bactericide trials, which compressed a five-year projected normal time frame to two years, due to research supported with state funding.

Other tools uncovered by research, such as managing pH and bicarbonates in irrigation or providing “just-in-time” water and nutrients to foster tree health, provide growers with powerful techniques to counter the devastating effects of HLB.

Growing Potential

UF/IFAS and USDA-ARS breeding programs have released new rootstocks that demonstrate better performance in the presence of HLB than industry standards. There have been more than 10 new rootstocks released in the past two to three years, and growers are cautiously incorporating these. In addition, higher tree densities (up to a whopping 400 trees per acre) shorten the cost/return formula and help manage risk.

No doubt, it is a new world out there in citrus production. But growers are gaining confidence to invest and stay in the business. Bolstered by a host of state and federal incentive programs that I have written about before, there is an increase in the number of trees being planted. According to FDACS, over the past two years, growers planted in excess of 3½ million trees each year. This total is greater than pre-HLB planting levels. We still need more trees in the ground to overcome HLB losses, but this is a great start. And there is a snowball effect. Once these trees reach productive age though intensive tree management and the various tools I mentioned above, more growers will have the evidence and resulting fortitude to replant. We are going to get there.

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