Opinion: Growers Eager For HLB Breakthrough

Frank Giles

If you’ve read this month’s cover story, you quickly capture the recurring theme of the search for a game changer. Nearly eight years since the discovery of HLB in Florida, growers are more eager than ever for a breakthrough that will give them hope there’s light at the end of the tunnel — preferably not an oncoming train.

I believe this season’s fruit drop renewed the sense of unease in growers’ minds regarding the pace of this disease’s spread across Florida’s citrus country. All along, growers have put a strong face forward and the majority still is hopeful solutions will be found. But, even the most optimistic personality sometime question whether or not we are on a quixotic quest in this battle. The worst fruit drop since 1969 can have that effect.

When I was interviewing this year’s Florida Grower Citrus Achievement Award winner, Bobby Barben, I was struck by his honest assessment of the uncertainty that is before us when it comes to HLB. But, I got a boost of confidence when he told me he believes in his heart that a solution will be found. He calls it a “game changer.” He says it may not be just one breakthrough, but a series of things that put us on a sustainable path forward.

That is good to hear from someone that is so close to the research aimed at tackling HLB. Barben serves as the chairman of the Citrus Research and Development Foundation’s (CRDF) Research Management Committee, so he closely reviews the projects proposed to take on HLB. He says he also is impressed with the caliber of people who make up or advise the CRDF. Great minds from many different disciplines are hard at work directing dollars toward science that hopefully will lead to a viable future for our citrus industry.

Scroll through the many research projects being funded by CRDF and it drives home the scale of work being conducted right now. When I hear they are scanning HLB-infected citrus trees through little MRI machines, it tells me high science is at work on our behalf. Looking beyond the science, there are other reasons for optimism. The juice processors are stepping up to the plate to invest in the future. Coca-Cola has announced a major planting initiative and investment of $2 billion in the state’s citrus industry. That’s right — “B” for a billion.

Partnering with Cutrale Citrus Juices and Peace River Citrus Products, Coca-Cola’s investment will enable the growers to plant 25,000 acres of orange trees. In my mind, that is another good shot of confidence this industry is nowhere near ready to throw in the towel.

Perhaps a quick look back at the history of other agricultural pest and disease problems hint that a game changer is en route for HLB. Many invasive plant pests and diseases have been defeated, including the eradication of the Asian longhorned beetle in Illinois, New Jersey, and Islip, NY; numerous exotic fruit fly outbreaks in Florida, Texas, and California; the wheat disease Karnal bunt in Texas and California; plum pox virus in Pennsylvania and Michigan; the boll weevil from all 17 cotton-producing states with the exception of the Lower Rio Grande Valley; and Khapra beetle infestations in a number of states.

But, probably what gives me the most confidence in the future is this quote from Barben during our conversation: “I believe we have a chance, no matter what, because Florida citrus growers are tough. All those freezes in the 1980s, I saw growers go out and replant with their last dollar. Those were tough times too, but we survived them and came out the other end.”

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