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When citrus loses, everyone loses

Highlands Today – February 14, 2016

SEBRING — Lenard Carlisle and David Terrell are seeing smaller crops, and therefore fewer citrus trucks rolling down the highways these days. The reason is the citrus psyllid, the gnat-sized insect that’s killing orange and grapefruit trees.

Because the fruit is smaller, the U.S. Department of Agriculture lowered its October estimate of the 2015-2016 Florida orange crop to 69 million boxes. That’s 52 percent less than 2011-12’s 146-million-box crop.

“The fruit’s not there, and that affects us too,” said Carlisle, 67, an irrigation specialist who runs Lenard Services with his youngest son, Jason, 39.

Terrell owns A-DAB, a Zolfo Springs company that delivers insecticides and nutritional chemicals.

“We sprayed 50,000 acres last year, and everyone I dealt with, their sales are down,” Terrell said. That includes the company that delivers diesel and the company that sells tires for agricultural machinery.

“We’re really in a state of emergency,” said Terrell, a former vice president of the Peace River Citrus Growers Association. “I’ve gotten requests from politicians. They want me to send them money.”

Terrell answers with messages. “Bush hasn’t said anything about the $10 billion citrus industry, which has been cut in half.”

Soon, mom-and-pop growers won’t be able to keep up, Terrell predicted. “You’ll see fences go up around the groves. You’ll see neglect, because caretaking costs are $2,000 per acre.”

Disease-resistant citrus trees are coming, Terrell said. “That is supposed to help us, but we don’t know if the tree is going to heal up. One of my customers told me once, canker is like catching a cold; greening is like having cancer.”

Jude Grosser, plant cell genetics professor at UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Citrus Research and Education Center, and Manjul Dutt, a research assistant scientist, isolated a gene from the Arabidopsis plant, a member of the mustard family, to create new trees.

“Citrus crop improvement using conventional breeding methods is difficult and time consuming due to the long juvenile phase in citrus, which can vary from four to 12 years,” Grosser said on UF’s website. “Improvement of citrus through genetic engineering remains the fastest method.”

Psyllids bite tree leaves to suck sap. Like a mosquito with malaria, psyllids are infected with Huanglongbing – greening disease. Their bacteria moves from the leaves through the veins of the tree, damaging the roots, woody trunk and limbs. Affected leaves start to yellow – thus the nickname Yellow Dragon.

Citrus greening was first detected in Florida in 2005, and came to Highlands County in 2007. Florida has lost approximately 100,000 citrus acres and $3.6 billion in revenues since 2007, according to UF/IFAS researchers.

Ray Royce, executive director of the Highlands County Citrus Grower’s Association, thinks every citrus tree in Highlands County has been affected.

Sick trees need more water, Carlisle said. His company – one of the few full service irrigation companies left in the Heartland – installs irrigation pipes and jets under each tree, which deliver from one gallon to seven gallons of water per hour.

But greening has affected ancillary work crews as well. His crew once numbered 17. Now it’s down to 10. “And we haven’t put in as many hours.”

Even though there’s not as much fruit to pick, information from Career Source Heartland shows worker numbers are still up. In 2013, 373 migrant and seasonal farm workers were employed in Highlands County, plus 1,281 H2A workers for a 1,654 total. In 2015, the total was 2,149 from both categories.

Statistics were similar in DeSoto and Hardee counties. That doesn’t include some H2A workers who have their own visas, said Donna Doubleday, CareerSource Heartland president.

Even so, said Carlisle, “Some owners have quit caretaking or doing anything.”

Carlisle started in the citrus industry in 1984. “I was told then that mom-and-pop groves would disappear. And that’s happened. “Almost all the 10- and 20-acre groves are owned by bigger companies.

Fruit drop is a major symptom of greening and all the other diseases affecting citrus at the same time: root rot, nematode, blight, sooty mold. Carlisle a grower who said half of his fruit was on the ground.

Was that an exaggeration?

“We’ve seen it,” Carlisle said. Just as perplexing: oranges are smaller, so a crop fills fewer boxes.

Crews are picking oranges earlier, Terrell said. “They’re already picking Valencias now. I think they may be done this year by May or mid-April. And then what happens? I don’t know how they’re going to keep (pickers) here? How are they going to pay when there is no income?”

Terrell is also seeing alternative crops: squash on State Road 64, and peaches and strawberries elsewhere in Hardee County. “I saw watermelons going in. They just finished pushing over the groves.”

Congressman Tom Rooney, R-Okeechobee, was joined Thursday by a bipartisan group, Republican representatives Bill Posey and Dennis Ross of Florida, and Democrats Mark Takano of California and Filemon Vela of Texas.

They heard a panel of scientists, USDA experts and industry members for an in-depth discussion on research gains being made in the fight against citrus greening.

State researchers and USDA experts spoke about the creative and innovative techniques they have developed to detect greening in trees more quickly, and how to better to treat diseased trees.

Experts said federal funding has been crucial to fill the gap between the research done in labs and success growers have in groves. Rooney was optimistic: “It is my hope that by working with all of you, we can get to a point where we may not have a cure, but we can manage greening in a way to make it worthwhile for someone to be a citrus grower.”

When Lenard retires, will his company still be there for Jason?

“We’re praying that it will be,” Carlisle said.

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