As crises surround the state’s signature crop, growers, packers, and other industry stakeholders seeking solutions showed up in bunches at this year’s Florida Citrus Show held Jan. 29-30 at the Havert L. Fenn Center in Ft. Pierce. The two-day conference and trade show presented by Florida Grower, UF/IFAS, and the Indian River Citrus League welcomed an all-time event record of nearly 800 attendees. “We all are so busy with our own companies, it’s great to go to a well-organized and attended event to network with others and hear the latest news on greening and other industry issues,” said Jerry Newlin, vice president of operations for Orange-Co. “The Show reinforced that our industry is as united as ever in the battle against greening and that we continue to turn over every stone in an attempt to find survival strategies.”
With multiple negative crop forecasts already in the books, and frustration mounting over HLB, the tone has been set for what’s shaping up to be another less-than-idyllic season. Given that, it appears producers especially and researchers alike are fed up with waiting. During his welcome address to attendees, Indian River grower and packer T.P. Kennedy issued a call for action in the fight against HLB. “To go further, we need to challenge our Citrus Research and Development Foundation members on the use of antimicrobials. We need these,” he said. In addition, Kennedy expressed urgency over the industry’s dwindling supply. “We need to put into everyone’s minds about a tree re-plant program.” Referencing the $125 million earmarked for HLB research in the new Farm Bill, Kennedy thinks the time is right to plant that seed.
How would you rate this year's Florida Citrus Show?
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Matt Salois, economist with the Florida Department of Citrus, agrees. “We’re selling everything we have, and at higher prices,” he said, which makes the Florida citrus industry unique in its economic conundrum. “This isn’t a demand problem, it’s a supply problem.”
The daunting challenge HLB has presented, along with the plodding progress in finding a cure, make it difficult to justify putting in new acreage. However, the educational sessions, featuring the latest research from UF/IFAS and USDA scientists, did provide some glimmers of hope. Amid several talks geared toward promising sour orange and sour-like rootstocks, Dr. Jude Grosser, UF/IFAS, said, “My goal before I retire is to give you a disease-resistant rootstock.” This statement spurred one audience member to ask: “So, when are you retiring?”
Attendees in the session room seemed to perk up during presentation given by Charles Powell, UF/IFAS, about the antimicrobial treatment of HLB. “There are quite a few molecules that will kill Liberibacter in the greenhouse,” he said. “Future testing [still about one year away] will focus on field application.”
According to Powell, next steps in antimicrobial research include creating more effective delivery systems, developing a time-release formula, and trying to find more molecules.
Some possible HLB solutions might not be that far in the offing. Dr. Wayne Hunter from the USDA lab in Ft. Pierce gave an update on RNAi treatments to disrupt Asian citrus psyllids using a non-transgenic approach. According to Hunter, Monsanto has secured a license to release a plant with the RNAi construct. This, he said, would be helpful in paving the way to commercialize a product to use in the field. “Hopefully, within the next six months, we will have a very strong package for EPA.”
Spike Schultheis, economist with the Small Business Development Center at Indian River State College, said in talking to growers, he finds different degrees of optimism and pessimism. “I don’t think anyone is optimistic about what HLB is doing to us economically,” he said. “We have a lot of great science out there, but what growers really want to know is when (a cure is coming).”