During this year’s Florida Citrus Industry Annual Conference in Bonita Springs, Tom Jerkins made a sporting-lingo observation about HLB during his talk to an overflow crowd in attendance. “I will tell you we are in the fourth quarter, and we are not winning,” he said.
I saw a lot of heads nodding in agreement with Tom’s sentiment. HLB has turned Florida’s citrus industry upside down and pushed growers far beyond their comfort zone. He likened researchers seeking solutions to this terrible disease as the football coaches in his analogy.
He said the “coaches” should be running up and down the sideline, throwing down headsets, yanking players out of the game, and screaming at refs. The sense of urgency is palpable in an industry where talk of an imminent shutdown of a processing plant is real and virtually every passing crop estimate drops by millions of boxes.
But, also we learned at the Conference about much of the research being done to fight HLB fueled by an influx of funding from growers and other sources. There is intense interest among growers in a bactericide that could treat trees and kill HLB.
Tom’s rally call to the Conference crowd said it all. “We need a bactericide now!” We do or any other solution or variety of partial fixes that will see us through to the other side. The good news is researchers are experimenting with a multitude of antimicrobial compounds, many of which will kill HLB. The trick now is finding ways to get them in the trees and get past regulatory hurdles that are problematic with some of the materials.
The thrust of research is now shifting away from controlling the vector to focus on the HLB bacteria. Growers have proven they can manage the psyllid pretty well, especially those participating in CHMAs. Now it’s time to find a bactericide and rootstocks or trees that have resistance to the disease.
During the Conference, Dr. Jude Grosser, from UF/IFAS, insisted we are getting closer to finding such a tree. Then, there’s the work with thermotherapy that already is being used by growers in the field. All are reasons for hope in the future.
Let’s turn to the post-game analysis. I am an optimist, so I am predicting a last second Hail Mary for the win thanks to all those people who have worked so hard to find answers and save the industry.
After it is all said and done, just think how much better growers will have become. In the past couple of years, I’ve observed this time and again as I’ve visited groves and seen how they’ve adopted so many new practices to keep trees alive and productive as possible.
Florida Grower’s August cover story is emblematic of the innovative and collaborative spirit among the community of growers now. Scott Lambeth is farming completely different today than just a few years ago by intensively managing the crop, putting footprints in the grove every day.
He is learning to apply new products and production methods to mitigate the effects of the disease. HLB has forced him and other growers work harder and stay longer in the groves to keep their trees happy and healthier. Imagine the result of all this work in the absence of HLB.
Finally, the cooperative spirit among growers is stronger than ever. They are on the phone with each other and riding their groves together to share ideas about what is working real-time while science seeks solutions. There is strength in numbers and that’s needed now more than ever while we wait for that Hail Mary pass to win the day.