Only Along the Gulfshore


Saving Citrus in Southwest Florida

Harmful greening is taking a big bite out of Florida's crop, but growers are fighting back with some promising new approaches.

See that tree there—the one with the yellowish-greenish tint? that’s greening.”

Wayne Simmons, owner of LaBelle Fruit Company and president of the Gulf Citrus Growers Association, is standing at the edge of a citrus grove in full sun on a breeze-less August afternoon. The trees march in straight rows to the horizon, hundreds of them, in various sizes and stages of maturity.

Nearly all of them are sick.

The virus that causes citrus greening mars the fruit and causes trees to drop it too soon.

A healthy tree, Simmons continues, would display a canopy of deep green leaves—the length of your hand, not the runtish, curling ones that afflict some of his branches. A healthy tree would produce uniformly sized oranges, not this mishmash of orbs fighting their way to the winter harvest.

“I planted this grove from ground zero. I watched it mature, and now I’m watching it die,” says Simmons, a sixth-generation Floridian who’s spent a lifetime in the groves. He stares, momentarily, at his labors. His words hang. And then Simmons snaps back into it, with the resolve of a citrus man’s optimism. “We’ll be all right,” he affirms.

Farmers are a resilient lot, but the last 10 years have tested even the toughest of them. Exactly a decade ago, the bacterial disease huanglongbing, better known as HLB or citrus greening, showed up on Florida’s east coast. Within a year, it was detected in Southwest Florida, threatening to decimate this essential component of the region’s economy.

In China, where the disease was first identified, huanglongbing translates as “yellow shoot” or “yellow dragon” disease. It is spread by the Asian citrus psyllid, a mottled little insect that lives and breeds on the new shoots of trees and injects them with the toxic bacteria. The trees try to isolate the pathogen by blocking off the afflicted parts of its vascular system. In the process, though, they clog the phloem, the tubes that carry food, halting the flow of nutrients. The trees starve and the bacteria eventually spread throughout. The sick trees drop the still-green fruit, rendering it useless. A monster of a disease, indeed.

Florida’s signature crop reached “a new low,” in 2014-15, according to Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. The industry, which used to crank out 250 million boxes a year pre-greening, yielded 96.7 million last year. The 2015-16 season is expected to be worse.

Growers have been through their fair share of hurt—the freezes in the ’80s that pushed them south to Hendry, Collier and Lee counties; the hurricanes of 2004-05; the citrus canker of the 2000s and the failed eradication policies that followed. Greening is the worst.

“This is probably the most heartbreaking,” Simmons says.

But look more carefully at his grove. Interspersed among the mature trees are 3-foot-tall sprouts. Simmons isn’t giving up on the industry, and neither are his Southwest Florida colleagues. Industry watchers predicted full-blown collapse within five years of HLB’s arrival, but growers and researchers—including a team of University of Florida scientists in Immokalee—have figured out how to keep greening from overcoming the state’s citrus industry. A quick response and industry-scientist collaborations put Southwest Florida ahead of the game.

Ten years after HLB’s arrival, here’s what researchers and industry leaders know, what they’re still trying to figure out—and why they are simultaneously worried about and optimistic for citrus’ future.   

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Construction noise greets visitors to the University of Florida’s Southwest Florida Research and Education Center in Immokalee. The 30-year-old institute is undergoing a 7,000-square-foot expansion, yielding space for six new faculty members. Its director, Dr. Calvin Arnold, expects funding for five positions right away: a plant pathologist, citrus pathologist, soil microbiologist, agricultural economist and weed scientist. They’ll join the seven researchers who are already there, fighting greening and other diseases and finding ways to produce healthier, more bountiful, less environmentally taxing crops.

Their work is critical. A third of Southwest Florida’s five counties is agricultural land. As of 2014, 125,551 acres were dedicated to citrus, valued at $326 billion in farm-gate sales, the net value of the crops minus marketing expenses. At least a quarter of Florida orange juice comes from Southwest Florida trees.

“You know, there are the three big legs of the Florida economy: tourism and construction and agriculture. The other two fell flat on their face during the recession, but agriculture, it held the economy up,” Arnold says. “We … need agriculture to be profitable, especially our kind of agriculture here because we’re emphasizing fruits and vegetables, the healthy side of the food pyramid.”

The center runs the University of Florida’s only HLB lab where growers can have their citrus tested for the bacteria. The faculty collaborates with other agricultural researchers from UF and around the world and works with local growers to test or implement new findings.

Greening’s early years in Florida were mired in uncertainty. There was little appetite for an eradication sweep after canker stole 16.5 million trees out of Florida backyards, nurseries and commercial groves. With up to 90 percent of Florida’s citrus trees HLB-infected, such a policy would annihilate the industry.

Most growers and scientists committed to living with the disease instead, explains entomologist Dr. Philip Stansly, who works at the Immokalee research center. Stansly’s team and others delved into studies of the Asian citrus psyllid to figure out what made the little bug tick, how it interacted with the bacteria and how to manage both. Other researchers scrutinized the HLB bacteria and experimented with rootstocks, seeking to grow a more resilient tree.

In the process, they discovered this: Even without a “magic bullet” cure, it’s still possible to coax a sick tree into producing decent fruit.

“You spoon-feed the tree, give it whatever it wants and baby it along,” Stansly says. Scientists and growers began experimenting with different nutritional and irrigation strategies in an effort to eliminate as many potential stressors as possible. This was a major operational shift: Citrus traditionally had been a hardy crop, growing and producing with little intervention. Today, farmers are hands-on caretakers.

“For years, growers were doing the minimal amount because they wanted to make money,” says Ron Hamel, executive vice president of the Gulf Citrus Growers Association. “Now, they are becoming really good growers. They are learning more about the health of the trees. … It’s all because of this research.”

Pest management remains the first line of defense. Southwest Florida growers started the state’s first Citrus Health Management Area, or CHMA, realizing that one grove’s psyllid eradication effort would be rendered useless by an inattentive neighbor. Stansly offered guidance on the best time to spray (in the dormant period before the spring flush and the psyllid mating season) and the most effective products to use. The first cooperative spray was done in the 2008-09 season, and sprays have been repeated at key times each year since.

“We developed a preemptive strategy in which we showed that by going in before that spring flush and controlling psyllids, you can reduce that population, and it would set the tone for the whole year,” Stansly says.

Growers in other parts of the state adopted the model, forming other CHMAs. The efforts haven’t defeated the psyllids, but they have seriously knocked them back.

“Nobody really likes to spray. Nobody really likes insecticides. But it’s a reality in the present environment,” says Stansly. 

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Growers equate trees to a human body: Someone who eats right, exercises and sleeps well will be able to ward off disease or weather the effects of a virus more easily than the binge-eating couch potato.

The difference between a carefully tended grove and one left to endure greening with limited human support is stark. Paul Meador, the owner of Everglades Harvesting & Hauling, offers a glimpse of both: In a minimally tended grove near the Collier/Hendry line, tiny balls of fruit cling to near-bare branches. In another, farther north, an orange grove continues stoically producing, the newest of the trees—including a brand-new, 80-acre grove—receiving doses of psyllid-killing sprays until they reach fruit-bearing age.

Even in the best-tended groves, growers today are happy to yield 300 boxes an acre—200 boxes less than the old industry standard, he says.

“The primary pressure right now is just the risk of staying in business,” Meador says. “All the things we’re accustomed to as growers have changed.”

Staying in business isn’t cheap.

Production costs, on average, for juice oranges were $2,484 per acre last year, compared to $775 in 2004, according to research by UF agricultural economists, including Dr. Fritz Roka, who is based in Immokalee.

 “Ten to 12 years ago for juice oranges, you weren’t spraying,” Roka says. “It was almost an organic program for pest control. … Now, we’re trying to keep the pysllids off and you’re spraying once a month or once every four weeks, which translates to 14 to 16 times a year.”

The spray adds up to an average of $943 per acre, plus an additional $55 per acre that growers spend on scouts to monitor greening. Nurturing replacement trees into maturity adds up to $275 an acre, more than twice what it used to. Fertilizer costs have jumped from $132 an acre to $502. In economic terms, growers are “price takers” who have to accept whatever prices the market is willing to bear. Lately, oranges have fetched a high price and the good growers—the ones willing to invest in their crops—have been able to offset the increased expenses, Roka says. Prices started to drop last year, adding to the uncertainty.

But here’s the good news: After years of waning yields, Roka thinks the growers who commit to the new strategies will reap rewards.

“(Statewide), the yield trends will go down, and that’s because you have more people going out of production,” Roka says. “But looking at those growers that are focused on production, that are looking at how to manage the disease in the most effective way possible, their yields are going to go up.”

Southwest Florida has lost its share of growers, who have given up 13,877 acres of citrus groves, but the ones who remain say they are in it for the long haul.

“Even though the citrus industry has its back against the wall, we have a lot of growers who believe in this industry, and they are planting young trees. Some of them are making huge investments,” Arnold says.

Rob Atchley stands by one of the hundreds of thousands of young trees his company has planted.

Rob Atchley slows his pickup to a halt at the edge of a 2,900-acre grove of fledgling orange trees. Atchley is general manager of citrus operations for DUDA, an 89-year-old, family-owned company in Hendry County that grows citrus, sugarcane, produce and sod; raises cattle; and runs a commercial and residential development firm.

The company has embraced what’s coming out of the scientific community—and is doing plenty of its own research to figure out how to make diseased trees perform like healthy ones.   

“We’re having a good go of it,” says Atchley. The new grove, planted between March 2013 and October 2014, has 750,000 trees. In addition to that, the company put in 55,000 trees this year in existing groves and plans to install another 80,000 next. Those replace trees lost to greening and other common citrus diseases.

In another part of the seemingly endless farm stands a 60-acre research and development field where Atchley and his team are exploring other ways of defying the disease and reaping a profit.

They are experimenting with the spacing of trees, hoping to grow more trees per acre on the premise that trees don’t grow as tall as they used to and are replaced more frequently than in the past. They are studying the effects of a new irrigation system hooked to moisture sensors so that trees get watered as needed, eliminating stress and using less water and fertilizer. They’re testing new varieties of citrus that may prove to be more HLB-resistant and experimenting with tangerines—a fruit that has been particularly hard-hit by greening.

Atchley puts his faith in science to find an answer. He’s watching with interest research into thermal therapy, which involves heating a tree to temperatures that kill the bacteria within. The theory works, but the logistics are challenging. More promising are experiments in finding a greening-resistant tree by combining rootstocks and varietal selections that are less likely to succumb to HLB.

“I’m 39 years old. There is plenty of time for me to go and try something else if I didn’t see a future in this business,” Atchley says.

He’s staying.

***

Greening is hardly the only stress on the citrus industry right now. Canker is still here. Meador is watching some groves his company manages suffer from citrus blight, a disease that afflicts older trees.

At the Southwest Florida Research and Education Center, plant pathologist Dr. Pamela Roberts is studying the spread of yet another scourge—citrus black spot, a fungal disease that mars the peel and provokes fruit drop.

“It does seem to move very slowly—just a number of trees per year—where in other diseases you’re talking acres per year,” she says, and then quickly adds, “There’s more finds of it every year in groves.”

The disease showed up in Immokalee and so far in Florida is limited to Collier, Hendry and Lee.

“There’s optimism here for the future of the industry.” — Ron Hamel

Orange juice consumption is down, spurred in part by rising costs and in part by shifting attitudes. Doctors and nutritionists are steering the public away from juice of any type, saying the sugars—even though naturally occurring—are contributing to America’s ever-growing waistline.

And the public is squeamish about genetically modified foods—even if splicing a gene from another plant (spinach is a primary contender) could mean creating a tree that repels the psyllid, resists the bacteria and reduces the pesticide use.

“In this conversation about greening, everyone in the citrus world is looking at these trees as the salvation,” Roka says of genetic modification. “My concern would be is you’ve got folks out there in the consuming public that have a negative perception of biotechnology, especially when it comes to their food. And right now, orange juice is about as pure as you can make it.”

Losing consumer loyalty, Roka suggests, is as big a threat as greening itself.

For now, though, growers will continue to gut it out using the strategies they have as scientists continue to scramble for solutions.

“We’re putting millions and millions of dollars into this research, and, slowly but surely, we are finding new things that enable growers to keep their trees relatively healthy and produce fruit,” says Hamel, of the Gulf Citrus Growers Association. “There’s optimism here for the future of the industry.”