Florida Citrus Growers Find Solace in Eye of the Storm

Florida Citrus Growers Find Solace in Eye of the Storm

Nothing has tested the mettle of Florida citrus growers more than greening. The devastating disease has throttled production for more than a decade with no real signs of slowing down. Add a major hurricane to the mix, and the challenge rises to a whole new level. For an industry seeking solutions, the 2018 Florida Citrus Show held last week in Ft. Pierce was the first chance for the state’s producers, packers, suppliers, and scientists to circle the wagons since Hurricane Irma struck.

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More than 700 people took advantage of the learning opportunity, attending the two-day conference and trade show hosted at the Havert L. Fenn Center and presented by Florida Grower magazine in cooperation with the UF/IFAS Indian River Research and Education Center’s Ferrarezi Citrus Horticulture LabUSDA, and the Indian River Citrus League.

Several themes emerged amid the activity: new HLB-tolerant varieties, storm recovery, and the potential of lemon production.

The education session room filled wall to wall both days with those hungry for information about progress being made on the research and development front. USDA Hort Lab Researcher Ed Stover led off a string of presentations focusing on new variety, rootstock, and scion updates. He expressed confidence in collaboration between USDA and UF/IFAS citrus breeding programs to find HLB-tolerant/resistant trees and fruit. “The future is bright, but there’ll be some dark days to get there.”

Lemon Drop
While there were more than a few promising orange, grapefruit, and pummelo varieties and rootstocks to take note of, attendees were all ears when it came to learning about production potential of lemons. Glenn Wright of the University of Arizona flew in on the red eye to talk about pros and cons of growing the acid fruit in the Sunshine State.

The challenges to producing lemons in Florida are many. Wright pointed out in particular: freeze threat, soil salinity, tree growth that requires extra topping and hedging, hand pruning, harvesting challenges due to large thorns, postharvest fruit quality, and oil spot.

“Oil spot is going to be a big problem,” he said. “It’s a cosmetic problem for fresh fruit. You need to handle the fruit gently, or it will mark up. You might even need to run the packing line slower so they don’t get bruised.”

On the positive side, Wright cited several juicy selections worth taking a look at, including ‘Eureka,’ ‘Lisbon,’ and ‘Bearss.’

Indeed, lemons are trending. They are the 7th most purchased fruit in the U.S.; and consumption keeps rising, Wright highlighted. “Lemon peel oil is gold,” exclaimed Fred Gmitter, UF/IFAS researcher and breeder who is working on a program probing the positives of lemon processing.

Not counting some costs, Wright said Arizona farmers are making roughly $1,000 to $1,500 per acre in lemons.

Storm Watch
The majority of 2018 Florida Citrus Show educational presentations touched on the wide-ranging impacts of Hurricane Irma. Evan Johnson, Research Assistant Scientist at the UF/IFAS Citrus Research and Education Center, focused on rehabilitating water-damaged citrus root systems. He expects fruit drop this season to be greater than normal, and to occur earlier. In addition, Johnson said stunted leaf and root growth are likely as trees replenish carbohydrate reserves and replace lost tissue.

His takeaway message to growers was to not push trees too hard as they slowly bounce back from extreme storm stress, while still battling the ever-present greening. “You wouldn’t ask a tree with the flu to run a marathon,” he said. “It needs to recover.”

HLB-infected grove care considerations after the storm were at the center of conversation of the grower panel that rounded out the program. Participants included Jim Hoffman of Estes Citrus, Jim Snively of Southern Gardens Citrus, and Rob Atchley of Duda Citrus.

Snively pointed out how the industry is in uncharted waters in the wake of Hurricane Irma. “After Hurricane Wilma (in 2005), it took us two crops to recover – and those trees were healthy (pre-HLB).”

Hoffman said while he doesn’t know how long it’s going to take for trees to rebound, he’s certain that dealing with HLB for years has made Florida growers more diligent. He plans to continue rigorous soil and leaf sampling. “The trees are beat up on the inside. They’re not made to wave in the wind like that,” he said. “My goal for 2018 is to make sure my trees have everything they need.”

All participants agreed that crop protection protocol and enhanced fertilizer programs need to be priorities. “If you think you can put less into a tree and get more out of it, think again,” Atchley remarked.

Despite the mess left behind by the storm and the mountain of uncertainties still ahead, Snively summed up the conversation with the right attitude. “We’re not backing down.”

To learn more about what was seen and heard during the 2018 Florida Citrus Show, scan the photo gallery above.