Florida’s citrus growers are expecting a decent crop this year after learning work arounds for citrus greening disease. What growers are relying on is a toolbox of remedies, among them boosting nutrition, newer greening-resistant varieties, and growing trees under cover.
“Citrus greening is still a big issue. Growers have learned to manage it. They’re doing nutrition programs that help feed the trees,” says Andrew Meadows, director of communications for Florida Citrus Mutual, a Bartow-based growers’ cooperative. “We’re learning to live with HLB [huanglongbing]. …we don’t have that silver bullet yet, but we do have some tools.”
There was optimism as growers continued to recover from last year’s Hurricane Irma. Aid is available through the 2017 Wildfires and Hurricanes Indemnity and Florida Citrus Tree Recovery programs. Growers are being reimbursed for crop losses in 2018, damages and the cost of replanting trees. More information is available through the USDA’s Bartow Service Center at 863-533-2051.
“There’s a lot of optimism around the industry considering what we had to go through last year with Irma. Now we’re on the way to recovery,” Meadows says. “We’re not where we want to be. Certainly it looks like it’s going to be a pretty good crop.”
Florida’s citrus industry has an $8.6 billion economic impact annually and employs 46,000.
In the Polk-Hillsborough county region, Chris Oswalt, the multi-county University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences’ agent for the area, also gave a positive report. “Based on my limited conversations, the crop looks to be as good or a little better than last year’s prior to the hurricane,” he says. “Early varieties seem to be a little heavier, with Valencias similar to last year.”
Growers are fine-tuning workarounds for HLB. “Growers continue to better adjust their irrigation and fertilization practices to reduce tree stress. Tree covers are becoming more widely used as a method to prevent psyllid transmission of HLB,” he notes.
Kyle Story, vice president of the Lake Wales-based Story Companies, which owns or manages some 7,000 acres of citrus, also believes growers are finding what works for them culturally within their budgets. “I like what I see, I’ve driven a lot of groves recently. The committed growers are seeing the results of their hard work.”
Considering the challenges growers have faced, the trees and crop look very healthy. “I am hopeful we will get the majority of that, if not all of it to market,” he says. He adds that private data also is encouraging. “We continue to reap the benefits and rewards of our breeding program through the USDA and UF/IFAS with new varieties, particularly for fresh fruit for the mandarin, easy-peel seedless market,” he says. Also in Polk, Dundee Citrus Growers Association is installing a Citrus Undercover Production System known as CUPS, which will operate like an agricultural subdivision. It’s expected to be in use later this year.
Jerry Mixon, owner of KLM Farms in Alturas, has put about 40 of his 300 acres under a screen to keep out the psyllids that spread HLB. He’s in the process of screening an additional 40 acres. “Ours is a complete enclosure over the 40 acres that we have. Envision a pool screen,” he says.
He’s also automated irrigation and is relying upon soil moisture sensors and controls that work wirelessly through phones. “We can turn off water and not waste that water. We think that’s really positive.”
Rain has helped to reduce stress on the trees, an important factor since citrus greening is stress related, Mixon says. “I think the industry is pretty positive right now. We’ve gotten through the year without a storm [so far],” he says. In Highlands County, UF/IFAS Citrus Agent Laurie Hurner says growers were crediting the rain for the good fruit. “There’s nothing better for a tree than natural rain,” says Hurner, who comes from a fifth-generation citrus family.
While pointing out it was early for projections, she says, “The growers seem to be way more optimistic.” Farther south, growers were continuing to invest after losing 60 to 80 percent of their crops last year because of Irma, reports Mongi Zekri, a multi-county UF/IFAS citrus agent for Charlotte, Glades, Lee, Hendry, Collier counties. “Most of growers are really large companies, so they are doing very well. They are spending money,” says Zekri, who holds a Ph.D. in Horticulture. “You cannot really be in between in the borderline. You have to quit or you have to take care of your growth. If you are in between, you will be losing money.”
Trees have been recovering nicely. “There are some people that are planting really new trees, protecting them with individual covers,” he says. “The Tree Defenders are becoming really popular with young trees.” At least part of the area does have canker and citrus black spot, however. “Citrus canker is worse than last season,” reports Zekri, adding it spread after the hurricane. “It caused a lot of problems to every variety of citrus.”
The hurricane also may have spread the citrus black spot, which is reported in Collier and Hendry counties. “We have quarantines about this fungal disease. You have to tarp your loads of fruit going to the packing house or going to the juice plant…. it is an extra expense for the growers,” Zekri says.
Meanwhile Juanita Popenoe, a UF/IFAS extension agent for Commercial Fruit Production in Lake, Orange, and Marion counties, reports crops in general are faring well. “For the few groves that are left up here, if they are good-looking trees, they look to have a good crop. If the trees have minimal maintenance, they have a poor crop,” says Popenoe, who holds a Ph.D. in Horticulture. “Now that we are having a dry spell, more fruit could drop, but right now it is not yet a problem.”
Growers have replanted, sometimes more densely, to keep up grove production as they combat greening. That has put pressure on nurseries to grow newer varieties quickly to meet demand. “We need to find a solution to actually produce trees faster and with higher quality,” says Rhuanito “Johnny” Ferrarezi, an assistant professor of Citrus Horticulture at the UF/IFAS Indian River Research and Education Center in Fort Pierce.
Ferrarezi is researching how to speed up production in the nursery through sub-irrigation. At the testing center, they apply water to a commercial tray instead of through an overhead irrigation system. “We actually shorten the crop cycle,” says Ferrarezi, who did his research on sub-irrigation for his Ph.D. in agricultural engineering from the University of Campinas, São Paulo, Brazil.
He’s added sensors to the system so the water will turn on automatically when needed. Research is continuing in the year-long project, which involves nursery plantings. “That is our bottleneck,” he says, “we don’t have enough trees available to replant.”
by CHERYL ROGERS