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Lake Alfred Citrus Research Center officials discuss past, future

The News Chief – November 29, 2017

LAKE ALFRED – Top University of Florida officials who came for Wednesday’s Citrus Research and Education 100th Anniversary Celebration spoke as much about the next 100 years of Florida citrus as they did about the past century.

“The citrus growers and scientists of 1917 had no idea that today we’d be experimenting with drones, genetic engineering and iPhone apps as tools to grow citrus. And we can’t know what citrus science will look like in 2117,” said Jack Payne, the chief executive at UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, which includes the Lake Alfred center. “I believe our descendants will hold ceremonies like this at which they’ll remark on how the citrus community came together in the early 21st century to surmount one of the greatest challenges in Florida citrus history.”

Payne was referring to the fatal citrus bacterial disease citrus greening, which threatens the industry’s viability as one of the state’s biggest agricultural commodities.

In his remarks, UF President W. Kent Fuchs referred to the 1967 book “Oranges” by John McPhee, which detailed the history of Florida citrus to that time. Fuchs suggested another nonfiction classic will be written about the industry’s fight against greening.

“I believe this book will tell how, eventually, growers soundly defeated (greening) assisted by UF scientists and graduate students at this center, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, lawmakers in Tallahassee and other allies,” Fuchs told an audience of about 500 people at the event. “Because if the 500 years of Florida citrus tell us anything, it’s that while natural disasters, diseases, economic downturns and other calamities may put citrus on the ropes for a time, citrus and citrus people will always prevail.”

Fuchs was referring to the introduction of citrus trees into Florida by Spanish colonizers five centuries ago.

Fuchs and Payne set the tone for the centennial event as a pep rally for an industry already struggling before Hurricane Irma swept across the citrus growing area in September.

Greening, first discovered in Florida in 2005, had resulted in more than a 70 percent decline in citrus production by the 2016-17 season. Then winds and flooding from Irma wiped out at least 50 percent of the current season’s crop by most industry estimates.

The UF speakers and growers who attended the event agreed scientific research will play a key role in leading Florida citrus back to productivity and health not only against greening but the long-term damage most of the state’s 62.2 million citrus trees sustained during the hurricane.

“Absolutely research is a necessity we have to have for the industry to survive,” said Jim Snively, vice president of grove operations at Southern Gardens Citrus Processing Corp. in Clewiston, a juice processor and one of the state’s largest growers.

Another of Florida’s largest citrus growers, Ben Hill Griffin III of Frostproof, agreed. The event was held in a building named for his father, the Ben Hill Griffin Jr. Citrus Hall.

“It (research) has been invaluable to the Florida citrus industry,” said Griffin, a third-generation grower. The center “has done very important work with individual growers on specific problems.”

Griffin cited work the Citrus Center did in the 1950s on controlling citrus snow scale, a damaging insect once common in Florida. As a result of its work, the snow scale presents no threat to Florida citrus trees today, he said.

“These folks at the center have helped the industry overcome a lot of pests and diseases,” said Dave Crumbly, vice president of agricultural services at Florida’s Natural Growers, a growers’ cooperative and juice processor. “They’ll overcome greening, I’m confident.”

Phil Rucks, owner of Phillip Rucks Citrus Nursery Inc. in Frostproof, cited the many new citrus plant varieties that have been bred at the center to improve quality, production or tolerate diseases.

“We’ve got to have research. It’s a necessity in life,” Rucks said. “If we didn’t have it, we don’t progress, and then we’ll go extinct.”

Rucks cited work done by emeritus center professors Jim Graham and Pete Timmer on controlling Phytophthora, a pathogen that attacks and destroys tree roots.

Fred Gmitter, professor of citrus genetics and breeding, gave a keynote speech that veered slightly off message.

Instead of the future, he took participants back to the origin of the citrus plant 8 million years ago, according to the fossil of a citrus leaf found in southern China, where scientists believe the species originated, Gmitter said.

During the next 2 million years, that original wild citrus plant branched off into three new species – citron, pummelo and mandarin, he said.

In the following six million years, the citron would evolve into today’s lemon varieties while the pummelo and mandarin would interbreed into today’s orange, grapefruit and tangerine varieties, Gmitter said.

Portuguese explorers brought sweet oranges to Europe in the 15th or 16th century, he said.

That evolutionary history was established by research in the past decade mapping the citrus genome, Gmitter said.

Scientists mapped the citrus genome for more than historical interest, he added. The research opened up possibilities for breeding new citrus varieties resistant to greening and other diseases through genetic engineering.

“What you hear from this center over the next decade will be the result of citrus genome sequencing,” Gmitter said.

Scientist and growers agree the ultimate solution to greening is breeding new citrus varieties resistant to the disease.

As it had during the past 100 years, the center’s research also will be guided by scientists collaborating with citrus growers on the real problems they face in their groves, said center Director Michael Rogers, an entomologist, and Lake Wales-based grower Frank Hunt III, in their speeches concluding the program.

“Citrus growers have always stepped forward to guide research and to provide a place where that research can be done,” Rogers said. “It’s not necessarily technology that’s behind why we’re going to win (against greening). It’s the partnership between growers and scientists.”

All the speakers noted the Lake Alfred center was established in 1917 and continued to be funded by financial contributions from the state’s growers, including voluntary taxes.

“That public-private partnership is very important. It strengthens the bond between the citrus industry and the Research Center and ensures their success,” Hunt said. “Facing the many challenges we have as an industry, we need all the help we can get.”

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