TALLAHASSEE — It’s the looming disaster many Floridians still don’t know about, the equivalent of a “zombie apocalypse” for the state’s multibillion-dollar citrus industry.
An incurable malady called citrus greening attacks the fruit, causing it to turn green and bitter, and eventually kills the tree. Florida’s famed oranges are most at risk.
“It’s running rampant,” said Thonotosassa grower Tom Folsom, whose family has farmed for more than 100 years. “We have hundreds of acres just standing there dead.
“I’ve had to push down other trees standing since the 1800s,” he added. “My great-granddaddy planted them. It’s hard to imagine.”
He has lost 1,200 acres of groves in the last three years.
The disease, which scientists refer to by its Asian name of “huanglongbing,” is now all over the world and in all 32 citrus-producing counties in Florida, according to the state Department of Agriculture.
“There is no question that this is an existential threat to the industry,” Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said in June.
With growers reporting losses of up to 40 percent of their fruit, at risk are more than 75,000 jobs and $9 billion in revenue that citrus generates in the state. Florida accounts for 65 percent of all U.S. citrus, with California a distant second at 32 percent.
Folsom didn’t give numbers but said he drastically cut hiring for picking season over the years as his orange production plummeted: “I can’t tell you I’m making any money at it anymore.”
For next year, the Florida Department of Citrus asked lawmakers for a $58.3 million budget — down $3.8 million from the current year — because of lower revenue from declining citrus crops. The budget request includes about $4 million for greening research.
The enemy is an invader from Asia called a psyllid, or jumping plant louse, and the killer bacteria it harbors. It was first noticed in Florida about eight years ago.
The bugs, about the size of a printed letter “o,” feed on citrus leaves and infect the trees with the bacteria as they go.
Researchers are looking into ways to cure the disease or to grow a strain of citrus resistant to the bacteria.
In September, Bayer CropScience and Florida Specialty Crop Foundation announced a three-year grant program for greening research. A $200,000 grant was given to Florida’s Citrus Research and Development Foundation in Lake Alfred.
That’s after growers put more than $60 million of their own money into the fight against greening over the last seven years. The Legislature approved another $8 million last session.
For now, Folsom is spraying his crops with insecticide every 30 days — a costly and mostly ineffective effort, he said.
“We need to find something resistant to the greening,’’ Folsom said. “If not, well, I just don’t know.’’
Earlier this year, the Coca-Cola Co. announced it will spend as much as $2 billion to plant 25,000 acres of new orange groves in Florida, or about 5 million trees.
The company, which owns the Minute Maid brand, has a significant interest; 96 percent of Florida oranges is turned into orange juice, also the official state beverage.
Last month, Putnam’s office said sales of Florida oranges, honey and other agricultural commodities actually increased in 2012 from the previous year.
“The value of the orange crop continued to rise, with $1.5 billion in sales, up from $1.3 billion,” the department reported. “Citrus growers produced 146.7 million boxes of oranges, up from 140.3 million.”
But results of the state’s yearly Commercial Citrus Inventory, put out by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in September, tell a different story.
Total citrus acreage is now about 524,000, according to the inventory, down 1 percent from the last survey and the lowest since 1966.
“Orange, grapefruit, and specialty acreage set new lows in the series,” it said. “All production areas showed decreases in orange acreage.”
The USDA’s Citrus Summary report, also released in September, says the “on-tree” value of the 2012-13 citrus crop is $1.12 billion, down 32 percent from 2011-12. Orange production decreased 9 percent to nearly 134 million boxes.
Florida Citrus Mutual, the trade group that represents more than 8,000 growers, is holding out hope that a turn against the disease is just around the corner.
“It’s agriculture and part of that is always battling Mother Nature,” spokesman Andrew Meadows said. “She giveth and she taketh away.”
Some developments show promise, he said, such as covering and heating the trees, root stocks that are at least tolerant to greening, and a wasp that seems to be an effective psyllid predator.
“It depends on whom you talk to, on which day,” Meadows said of growers’ attitudes. “You’ve got some negative people but also some optimists. We have third-, fourth-, fifth-generation growers who are in it for the long haul.”
Folsom, one of those with a heritage of orange growing, said he doesn’t know how much longer he can hold on.
“We survived (citrus) canker, we survived freezes,” he said. “Now, we’re just trying to hold on to what we have. It’s almost impossible. It’s a bleak situation.”