I like to use a quote from Mark Twain in my various speeches to describe the current state of the Florida citrus industry. To paraphrase the great Twain, “Rumors of the Florida citrus industry’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.”
That’s not to say we aren’t facing some immense challenges. Disease pressure, high inventories, and inconsistent OJ consumption are definitely putting the squeeze on growers. 2008–2009 was not an easy season. We had low fruit prices that weren’t at break-even level; so many growers who didn’t have long-term contracts probably lost money.
Despite the pricing environment, Florida citrus is still a $9.3 billion industry covering almost 600,000 acres and employing nearly 76,000 people. We remain a powerful economic engine, particularly in Florida’s interior. Many rural communities depend on citrus, and with the overall economy sagging, our crop — and agriculture in general — becomes even more important. All of us can be proud of that fact.
Despite these positive facts, the spread of greening, the most serious citrus disease on the planet, is putting our industry and the ancillary businesses that rely on it at risk. Unfortunately, the same climate that makes it a great place to be a grower, also makes it a nice place for pests and diseases to make a home.
Faced with this situation, it’s not easy to sum up how growers feel.• Nearly every grower does feel a sense of urgency. They have to act quickly or risk their grove and ultimately the entire industry.
• For those groves that have been lost, some aren’t being replanted. I know of several growers who will not put a reset in the ground until they feel comfortable that there are solutions beyond removing infected trees.
• There’s a lot of frustration out there. Increased production costs associated with a full-blown disease-management plan are weighing heavily on growers. Costs can escalate by as much as 50% per acre to scout, spray, and remove infected trees. In the current pricing environment I detailed earlier, this is putting a real squeeze on growers, especially the smaller ones who don’t have the economies of scale to spread the increased costs around.
• Some growers also have bad neighbors who either aren’t doing anything to protect their trees from HLB, or they are developers who own abandoned groves. This is more than frustrating to a conscientious grower who manages psyllids and removes infected trees, and then a few weeks later, once again has psyllids because the neighboring landowner isn’t doing anything.
The good news is the way the industry has come together to research this disease. Citrus scientists currently have more than 100 research projects underway to find short-term and long-term solutions to greening. I’ve called it citrus’ own “Manhattan Project.”
We are starting to understand the psyllid and the bacteria that causes HLB. Natural predators, guava volatiles, pheromones, and genetics are all showing promise. We now know of effective management programs that are proven to knock down the psyllid. Eventually, a fungal compound could provide us with a strong biopesticide. USDA scientists recently had a huge breakthrough when they sequenced the bacterium that causes greening.
At the same time we ramp up HLB/canker research, it is vitally important that USDA and the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol continue to be vigilant about keeping other insidious non-native citrus diseases such as leprosis and citrus variegated chlorosis out of Florida. Those diseases are currently in Brazil and moving northward, so this is a serious concern. The Port of Miami is where greening and canker came into Florida, so we have to keep an eagle eye on Miami to make sure no unauthorized food products are getting into Florida. We can’t let another exotic pest gain a foothold in our groves at a time when we are directing so many resources toward greening and canker.
Citrus growers are a resilient bunch who have weathered all kind of storms through our century-long history. If our past is any indicator, we’ll emerge from today’s challenges leaner, meaner, and better for it.