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Citrus Greening Threatens One Of Florida's Largest Industries

Boca Life Magazine – April 2018

Vero Beach’s Riverfront Packing Company is in the heart of the Indian River District—a 200-mile-long swath of land from Daytona Beach to West Palm Beach that Riverfront’s president and CEO Dan Richey calls “the ultimate grapefruit land in the world.”

From November to March, the packing house’s loading bays receive truckload after truckload of freshly picked grapefruit from Scott Family Citrus’ 4,000 acres of nearby groves. The machinery and employees inside the A-frame steel building are busy as they size, grade, polish, dry, wax, label, pack and ship what looks to the untrained eye like an endless supply of grapefruit. It’s an industrial setting, but the smell is heavenly—a zesty, verdant sweetness hangs in the air as the freshly picked fruit bump and roll along conveyor belts, chutes and lanes, traveling through a streamlined process that relegates small or blemished fruits to the juicing trailer, and sends larger, more eye-pleasing fruits into cartons that will carry them to fruit markets worldwide.

While the supply looks endless, to Richey, the inventory of grapefruit is anything but unlimited—and thanks to citrus greening disease, it’s getting worse by the year.

“In the late 1990s, we were shipping 10 million cartons of grapefruit a year to Japan, nine-million cartons to Europe. But this year,” Richey says, shaking his head, “we’ll be lucky to ship 700,000 cartons to each of those markets.”

Take a closer look at the fruit rolling by on Riverfront’s machinery and you start to see what Richey means: small grapefruits that you’d swear are limes, pouring into a bin destined for the juice plant.

Richey pulls one out, holding it up between his thumb and forefinger. “This is the effect of citrus greening right here,” he says. “It’s irregular shaped. It’s green. It’s tiny.” He tosses it back to the bin. “This one never had a chance,” he says.

That steadily filling bin is a troubling symbol of the existential threat that Florida’s citrus industry faces today. Growers and researchers agree: If a cure for citrus greening isn’t found soon, it could mean death for the state’s most iconic industry.

Fruitful Beginnings
Florida grows more oranges than any other region, except Brazil, and leads the world in grapefruit production. There are nearly 4,000 citrus groves comprising more than 74 million trees on 437,000 acres of land across Florida, and the fruit produced is processed by 19 citrus packing houses and 12 juice plants.

Each year the industry notches out around $10 billion in revenue and generates close to $1 billion in tax contributions that help support schools, highways and health care.

Beyond mouse ears and palm trees, the orange is Florida’s most beloved symbol. But despite its iconic status, citrus is not indigenous to Florida. Spanish sailors traveling with Ponce de León planted the first orange trees in St. Augustine in the mid-1500s. A French count named Odet Philippe introduced the first grapefruit seeds near Tampa in the early 1800s.

Florida’s sandy soil and tropical climate suited the transplanted trees. Like the snowbirds that would follow them in the centuries to come, citrus put down roots. By the late 18th century, you could find wild citrus in any Florida forest, and in newly cultivated groves from the Gulf of Mexico to the Treasure Coast. By 1950, citrus had become Florida’s signature industry, turning out more than 100 million boxes of fruit annually. By the 1990s, the harvest regularly surpassed 200 million boxes, with an all-time high of 244 million boxes in 1997 to 1998.

Citrus in Crisis
Today, the state’s citrus crop is less than one-third of what it was 20 years ago. Private estimates had predicted that Florida’s groves would turn out 75 million boxes of oranges and six million boxes of grapefruit this past season—slated to be the best crop in a decade. The actual numbers fell far short of that forecast: 45 million boxes of oranges and 4.5 million boxes of grapefruit, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). That’s the second worst season on record for oranges, since the 1944 to 1945 season produced just 42 million boxes. Grapefruit growers aren’t faring much better, with the worst production on record since the 1918 to 1919 season.

“Florida continues to face its lowest citrus production in more than 75 years,” says Shannon Shepp, executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus—a state agency that handles the marketing, research and regulation of all things citrus. “This industry remains in crisis.”

A portion of that crisis is due to Hurricane Irma’s September 2017 landfall.

The storm knocked unripe fruit to the ground, uprooted trees and left groves in standing water for weeks—resulting in a $760 million loss in revenue, according to economists at the University of
Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

However, the longer-term problem is citrus greening: A disease so deadly it has decimated every other citrus region where an outbreak has been diagnosed. But Florida’s growers—long known for their grit and resilience—are doubling down on the industry they love, betting that with the help of science, their groves will be the first to survive.

Bugging Out
Chinese citrus growers who identified the disease in the early 1900s called it Huanglongbing (HLB), or “yellow dragon disease” because of the distinctive yellow leaf color it causes. The disease is spread by the Asian citrus psyllid: a sap-sucking insect the size of a grain of rice. Like the citrus trees they feed on, psyllids are not Florida natives, landing in the U.S. around 2000 as stowaways on plants shipped through the Port of Miami. Psyllids aren’t fast fliers, but they can float on the breeze as easily as pollen does, and some scientists think their rapid spread across Florida may have been boosted by the winds generated in the 2004 quadruple punch of Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne.

When psyllids feed on citrus shoots and leaves, they inadvertently infect trees with the HLB-causing Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus bacterium. It invades a tree’s vascular system, constricting key nutritional pathways like an arterial plaque, wasting root systems and preventing fruits from accumulating sugar. Trees with advanced HLB yield stunted, shriveled, sour fruits, producing juice that’s unpalatably bitter. Without specialized nutritional support and care, an infected tree will die in three to five years…

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