Florida’s forests of citrus trees have weathered drought and hurricanes, heat and cold and withstood diseases like canker and blight. They have repelled attacks from the Mediterranean fruit fly and brown aphids and each time emerged damaged but mostly victorious.
Now, the Sunshine State citrus industry is facing what may be its most serious threat: a bacterium spread by a pinhead-size bug that slowly kills trees while turning normally sweet fruit bitter and misshapen.
Agricultural analysts with the University of Florida say that between 2006 and 2012, citrus greening has caused $3.6 billion in losses to Florida’s economy.
“Greening is hitting everything,” said Richard Skinner, owner of Hawkins Corner Nursery in Plant City. “Greening does make fruit really sorry. It just messes up the taste. It’s not sour. It’s not sweet. It’s just yucky.”
Skinner’s family has farmed a small citrus grove here since 1900 but was forced to rip up some 1,600 trees last year, mostly because of the citrus greening fear.
A combination of problems surfaced over the past few years that made the grove susceptible to disease, he said. Citrus canker and a string of freezes weakened the trees, he said, making them easy targets for the greening bug.
He said his former 12-acre grove was cared for mostly out of family tradition. But faced with an incurable disease, the weakened trees were pulled out, and after a century of farming, the family was out of the citrus-producing business.
“Some of those trees,” he said, “were 80 and 90, 100 years old.”
Citrus greening has found its way around the globe, originating in China and spreading to other parts of Asia and Africa and South America. It surfaced in South Florida in 2005 and has infected commercial groves in just about every county in the state.
There is no known cure for citrus greening, as growers are forced to watch their trees eventually wither and see their bitter fruit drop from nearly bare branches.
Growers knew the disease was bad but now are beginning to realize how grim the situation might be.
“Truly, this is the greatest challenge Florida citrus growers have ever faced,” said Michael Sparks, vice president and CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual, which is the largest industry advocate in the state. “This year was arguably the most difficult year that the growers have ever had.
“Last year, we knew it was statewide problem,” he said, “but it was this year when we saw how severe and how devastating greening can be.”
Sparks said the disease already has gained a foothold here, as researchers scramble for a cure or at least a way to keep the disease from spreading.
“I suspect that every grove in the state of Florida has some level of greening,” Sparks said.
For the last six years, Florida citrus growers have funded a wide range of research and there are more than 100 research projects under way, he said. They range from examining ways to increase tree resistance to greening to interfering with the infecting bug’s mating cycle.
“Some of that research finally is showing promise,” he said. But for research to bear fruit, he said, “We’ve got to get it (from the lab) onto the back of a tractor.”
Florida leads the nation in growing and selling citrus and ranks second in the world for orange juice production behind Brazil. Economists say Florida groves generate nearly $9 billion a year.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture lowered its estimate of the 2012-2013 Florida orange crop by a million boxes to 138 million boxes. The USDA makes its initial estimate in October and revises it each month as the crop is harvested until the end of the season in July. The government’s original estimate was 154 million boxes of oranges.
The greening epidemic has killed millions of citrus trees already in the Southeast, the USDA’s website said, “and is threatening to spread across the entire country.”
The disease is transmitted by an infected insect, the pinhead-size Asian citrus psyllid, “and has put the future of America’s citrus at risk,” the USDA says on its website.
Citrus greening, known in scientific circles as Huanglongbing, already has devastated citrus production in a number of countries in Asia, Africa, the Indian subcontinent and the Arabian Peninsula, according to the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
In 2004, it surfaced for the first time in the Western Hemisphere in Brazil. Wherever greening has appeared, citrus trees have died by the millions, the institute’s website said.
In August 2005, the disease appeared in South Florida in infected trees near Homestead and Florida City, the website said.
The early symptoms appear on the leaves, which display yellowing veins. Some leaves may be devoid of green or with only green splotches. The yellowing can spread throughout the tree over the course of a year, especially on young trees, causing a steady decline in citrus productivity.
C. Dennis Carlton, a Hillsborough County grove owner, said some of his trees have been infected.
“Every grove in Florida has it,” he said. “The grove I have at my home in Dover was the first one to get it here. We had everyone in the world out there, looking at it, then we figured out what it was.”
If a research breakthrough isn’t made over the next couple of years, the industry’s production will continue to nosedive, he said. That’s already happening.
The state “went from picking 240 million boxes of citrus to maybe 140 million boxes this year,” he said.
Is it the end for the vaunted Florida citrus industry?
“We hope not,” he said. “Greening is much more damaging than any other disease or pest before this. Greening has the ability to wipe the industry out.
“I’m not saying it will do that,” he said, “but it does have that potential.”