Citrus feature: What’s in a number?


Citrus growers are committed to replanting and all-in on the numbers game against greening

SOME CITRUS EXPERTS are expecting the smallest crop in 53 years this year, as the industry continues to battle citrus greening disease and other challenges, such as post-bloom fruit drop (PFD). Though the numbers look grim, there are positive signs for the industry’s future. Replanting plays an important role. “Are you in or are you not?” asks Phillip Rucks, a 32-year veteran of the citrus nursery business. “Farming is ultimately a numbers game. If you’re not in, and you want to milk it down, basically you have said you’re going to eventually close the doors.”

Rucks is adding soil microbes to give new plantings a better chance for survival. “These [Mycorrhizae] are living organisms,” says the founder of Frostproof-based Phillip Rucks Citrus Nursery, Inc. “It’s kind of like boosting immunization.”

According to the EcoMyc International Corporation, located in Deland, Mycorrhizae provides a secondary root system, strengthens the plants resistance to pests and disease, speeds plant development, saves up to 50 percent on fertilizer the first year in the grove, helps increase water and nutrient uptake, and speeds plant development.

Citrus greening, or Huanglongbing (HLB) disease, has been plaguing the state’s citrus industry since at least 2005. The disease spread by the Asian psyllid misshapes fruit and eventually kills the trees. Scientists have been working hard to find a solution, among them more greening-tolerant trees.

THE NUMBERS GAME: REPLANTS AND THE RIGHT BALANCE OF NUTRIENTS

Government and private industries are offering planting incentives. In August, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) began offering 75 percent cost sharing on eligible irrigation and nutrient management for new and existing groves. The $5.5 million program includes 100 percent of engineering and design fees. Benefits are capped at $250,000. To learn more, scan the QR code here with your smartphone or tablet.

Newer, more greening-tolerant varieties are giving the trees a better chance. “We’re finding rootstocks that don’t support growth of bacteria at all,” says Dr. Jude Grosser, a University of Florida professor in citrus breeding and genetics at the Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred. “Some look as though they are transmitting high level of tolerance or resistance to the root of the tree.” Some plants “in the field” may be available in two years, he says.

Dr. Grosser also has learned even “really compromised” groves can come back with constant nutrients to the roots. They can be supplied by time-released fertilizers, more frequent soluble fertilizer applications, and/or liquid fertilizers that boost micronutrients. “This disease compromises the trees ability to take up some of these micronutrients,” he explains. “You have to find away to supply those in trees.”

Some growers are combining the more expensive time-released formulas with traditional soluble fertilizers to reduce the cost. After boosting nutrients, it may take eight to 10 months to see an improvement. “When you start on the nutritional programs,” Dr. Grosser continues, “you have to grow a whole new root system. That’s why the trees are collapsing so fast.” A plant breeder, Dr. Grosser became interested in nutrition to keep his “babies” alive. “I don’t want them to die to disease,” he adds.

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THE NUMBERS GAME: FORECASTS FOR THE COMING SEASON

The state produced 54.9 million boxes of oranges in 1963-64, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture/National Agriculture Statistics Service.

Even before the October 12 report, industry experts were bracing for a major decline. Citing Dr. Elizabeth Steger, founder of Citrus Consulting International, and her 60.5-million-box estimate for oranges, John Strang predicted a similar number. “I wouldn’t venture to guess it was much different than she came up with. If I had to come up with a number, I’d say 59, just because it looks like it’s going to take a lot more fruit to make a box,” says the citrus manager of Auburndale-based Gapway Groves. Strang also is a Polk County Farm Bureau board member.

Larry Black, past president of the growers cooperative Florida Citrus Mutual, says he was surprised with the Steger estimate, although he also expects a decline. “The crop is going to be down because there’s fewer trees.” Black, general manager of Peace River Packing in Fort Meade, says the company is aggressively replanting in higher densities. “We are concerned that statewide the acres devoted to citrus is shrinking, but we believe growers will replant and the trend will reverse as growers have confidence.”

Clint Updike, president of Alturas-based Updike Citrus Services, agreed with the 60.5 million figure. “The trees are in better shape than they were last year,” he asserts. “The PFD is the hooking bull in the pin right now.”

Charlie Thomas, director of operations for the Brandon-based Florida Bulk Sales Inc., is anticipating something between 65 and 68 million boxes of oranges. Thomas says the company is a trader, and has been selling a larger amount of blended orange juice concentrate in recent years.

The Florida Citrus Commission set its preliminary budget on a projected 58.1 million boxes of oranges and 8.765 million boxes of grapefruit. “Our marketing programs this season continue to focus on targeting millennial moms with a message of the great taste and health benefits of Florida orange juice. This will be done through a variety of paid media, social media, earned media, and influencer outreach,” says Samantha Lane, director of global marketing for the Florida Department of Citrus. “Orange juice continues to be America’s favorite 100 percent fruit juice,” Lane points out. “In 2014-15, Americans consumed 2.93 gallons of orange juice per capita. That’s about double of all other 100 percent fruit juices combined.” Consumption has “outpaced” production, she says.

The Department of Citrus is focusing marketing this year on the United States, Canada, and South Korea. Through grower-contributed dollars has shrunk due to lower production, the state of Florida is providing $7.65 million of general revenue to continue promoting orange juice “at a level similar to last season,” she says. Some $650,000 will be used to research new varieties.

Additionally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is funding international marketing to the tune of $4.3 million, including the Florida grapefruit and Florida orange juice in Canada and South Korea, she adds.

THE NUMBERS GAME: THE BEST DEFENSE IS A GOOD OFFENSE

Meanwhile scientists worldwide are continuing their effort to find a solution to greening. In September, more than 1,000 scientists and growers attended an International Citrus Conference in Brazil. “The 500 presentations covered a wide range of topics, including considerable coverage of HLB research worldwide,” says Dr. Harold Browning, chief operations officer of Citrus Research and Development Foundation, Inc. in Lake Alfred. “Here at home, work continues in relation to evaluation and continued availability of the bactericides approved for treatment of trees infected with HLB. A wide range of trials are being completed and data assembled on the performance of the two bactericide active ingredients, streptomycin and oxytetracycline.”

Florida citrus has a $10.8 billion impact. “Despite all the negativity and doom and gloom on the production and consumption side, Florida citrus remains a powerful economic engine,” says Andrew Meadows, Florida Citrus Mutual’s director of communications. “The challenge for growers is to have the confidence to plant trees and get production to rebound; we’ve got to get prices down, then we can ramp up our marketing programs.”

Polk County, which had been the state’s major citrus producer, fell to third place in the 2015-16 year, following Hendry and DeSoto counties. Though it lost 4,033 acres of citrus, it continues to have more acreage than any other county. Meadows acknowledges Polk was “hit hard” with greening and post-bloom fruit drop. Florida supplied 49 percent of the country’s total citrus, a 16 percent reduction from 2014-2015.

Despite last year’s results, the forecast for the season ahead, and the continued challenges that come with the disease, growers remain steadfast in planning for the long-term. As they rally around replants and other strategic growing practices backed by science-based research, hope remains that the formula for success over citrus greening will present itself.

CREDIT

article by CHERYL ROGERS