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Local growers welcome federal help to battle citrus greening

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Published:   |   Updated: December 13, 2013 at 09:50 PM

TAMPA — Citrus greening is poised to claim more and more Florida fruit trees and could, some say, destroy Florida’s signature crop within a decade. But now that the federal government has joined the fight, growers and scientists are hoping to repel the insidious disease spread by a nib-sized bug.

“This is good news, good news,” said Mike Sparks, CEO of the Lakeland-based Florida Citrus Mutual, the largest citrus industry advocate in the state. “We’ve had 135,000 acres of citrus groves abandoned already because we can’t find a temporary solution. At stake is the $9 billion industry and 76,000 jobs.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announcement this week that it’s creating an “emergency response framework” to battle citrus greening. The department will gather various groups, agencies and experts to coordinate and focus federal research and funding on fighting the disease.

Richard Skinner owns Hawkins Corner Nursery in Plant City. Citrus greening has forced him to yank all 1,600 of his trees out of the ground because of the greening infection. His family grove had been producing citrus for over a century and some of the trees he had to pull up were 80 and 90 years old, he said.

Skinner said the future of his grove is cloudy. He has to come up with a plan of what to plant by the end of 2014 to keep his green-belt tax exemption.

“I’m very reluctant about putting citrus trees back for the simple reason we haven’t gotten rid of the disease,” he said.

The state is working on creating a hybrid peach tree that will flourish in Florida’s climate, and that may be an option for growers, he said.

“That’s the most promising thing,” he said. “It’s something to think about. But if we put peach trees in, there is a five- to seven-year wait before we can harvest the peaches. That’s a long-range solution, but ultimately it probably will be the solution.’’

Like other growers, Skinner hopes the renewed federal focus will hasten a breakthrough before the disease claims all of the citrus trees in the state. So far, nothing has slowed the spread of the disease.

The citrus greening bacteria, which is spread by a non-native, tiny insect, causes trees to produce green, disfigured and bitter fruit by altering nutrient flow to the tree, eventually killing it.

It threatens Florida’s $9 billion annual citrus industry, and growers and scientists suspect that many of Florida’s 69 million citrus trees already are infected. This year’s orange crop is expected to be the smallest in 24 years, largely due to greening. Agricultural analysts with the University of Florida said that between 2006 and 2012, citrus greening has caused $3.6 billion in losses to Florida’s economy.

Florida citrus crops accounted for two-thirds of the total U.S. market share, though agricultural acreage devoted to citrus output is the lowest since 1966.

Florida growers welcomed the USDA’s announcement this week, though the $1 million a year in USDA grants is small compared to the $10 million a year the state’s growers contribute to citrus greening research.

Citrus greening is not limited to Florida or even the United States. It originated in China and spread to other parts of Asia, Africa and South America. It surfaced in South Florida in 2005 and has infected commercial groves throughout the state since, forcing growers to watch helplessly as their trees wither and the bitter fruit drop from nearly bare branches.

For the past seven years, Florida citrus growers have pitched in $70 million to fund more than 100 different research projects. They range from examining ways to increase tree resistance to greening to interfering with the infecting bug’s mating cycle.

Though the participation of the federal government is welcomed, it remains unclear if it will help in the long run, Sparks said.

“Will it be here in time? Nobody knows,” he said. “Doggone it, we’ve been battling this for seven years. “We’re on our knees right now.”

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

kmorelli@tampatrib.com

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