With more arsenal against greening comes new plantings
As Florida’s citrus growers battle greening, fourth generation citrus grower Kyle Story— along with his dad, Victor Story, Jr., and brother, Matt— has planted a new orange grove in southeastern Hardee County. Much like investors buying in a down market, the family decided to put their money into the business that’s been their livelihood for nearly 70 years: Citrus.
“We feel that, in the right area, with the right management practices, and the right rootstocks, now is the time to reinvest in the industry [long term],” says 32-year-old Kyle, vice president of the Lake Wales-based Story Companies. They are not alone.
Why New Plantings Now?
Wilton Simpson, an egg farmer, environmental services entrepreneur, and state senator from Trilby, north of Dade City, is planning to plant his first citrus grove in Dundee this August, followed by another grove in Dade City next year. He decided to diversify into fresh citrus fruit trees because the timing was right. He also believes the value of the land will increase over time. “When everybody is running, sometimes that’s the time to get in,” Simpson says. “I believe in the long run we will solve the greening problem.”
Florida’s citrus industry (with an economic impact of $9 billion annually) has been battling greening disease, which was discovered in South Florida about nine years ago. Acres bearing citrus have dwindled from 679,000 in 2003-2004 to 489,600 in 2012-13, according to the Florida Citrus Statistics 2012-2013 report issued in April of this year.
Despite problems, experts are cautiously hopeful for a long term solution. “I’m very comfortable with the pace of the research and the discovery that’s happening,” says Dr. Harold Browning, chief operating officer of Lake Alfred’s Citrus Research and Development Foundation (CRDF). “We’re starting to stack tools that can lead to success with a new planting.”
“We’re optimistic. It’s a new era out there. There are signs that people believe in the future of the industry,” says Andrew Meadows, communications director for the Lakeland-based grower’s cooperative, Florida Citrus Mutual. Phillip Rucks, founder of Phillip Rucks Citrus Nursery in Frostproof, adds, “We’re going to work through this. We’ve got to step it up and work though it.”
Strategy for the Growing Arsenal
One of the latest tools to kill HLB involves heat and/or steam. William Kanitz, president of Scoring-Ag Equipment in Venice, has a tree steamer that can be used on trees up to 15-16 feet tall, for $10.28 per tree. A tunnel-shaped tent can by pulled by a farmer on his tractor, or the grower can contract to have his trees steamed. Treatments are expected to last two years, buying time for more HLB research.
Dr. Reza Ehsani, associate professor of agriculture/biological engineering at Citrus Research and Education Center (CREC) in Lake Alfred, has been researching heat therapy. “The heat treatment is very effective in mitigating the progress of disease,” he explains. “This is the most available thing right now.” He has used the therapy on young, small trees. “At some point, it’s too late to do anything,” he says. “For a lot of cases that we have, I think heat treatment could be a very promising technique— till we can find a better solution.” Instead of replacing a tree he suggests, “Why not just try this? If you can return some of those trees back to reproduction, it may be worth trying it.”
Dr. Ehsani is attempting to secure $1.5-$2 million in University of Florida and/or federal funding to study injecting steam into the ground to kill the disease in the roots. He expects to know in a year if this will work. Dr. Ehsani points out that injecting steam into the soil to sterilize it isn’t new; it’s been used by strawberry farmers. The trick is to eradicate the disease without killing the tree.
Larry Black, general manager of Peace River Packing Company in Fort Meade, who has been participating in the research, is encouraged. “We were able to retain a high percentage of the fruit crop. That was a surprise to me,” says Black, president of Florida Citrus Mutual.
Black also has been increasing grove densities, sometimes up to 303 trees per acre or double the traditional number. The first crop is three years old and they are “very encouraged by the progress,” he says.
On the Precipice of Change
Another area of promise involves the use of anti-microbials. Dr. Browning says researchers are looking into “repurposing” antibiotics used on other crops, or utilizing plant essential oils to kill bacteria. “You’re trying to actually kill the bacteria that is in the plant,” he explains. “The challenges for us are multiple. We know that several of these materials will kill the bacterium.” Because they already are in use in agriculture or are already regarded as safe, it would be easier to gain approval. Bio-pesticides to kill the psyllid also would be easier to approve. “If we get results,” he continues, “they could be in use as early as next year. We’re kind of on the precipice.”
Growers have been resisting the disease using neonicotinoids on plants up to two years old, in addition to spraying pyrethroids to kill vectors (Asian psyllids) that spread the disease.
Brandon Page, spray program coordinator, says the statewide average was seven psyllids per block in April, May and June, up from the all-time low in February of under two psyllid per block. Rates typically inch up in spring.
Area wide controlled sprays are important, so in some cases growers are obtaining permission to spray their neighbors’ abandoned groves. Psyllids also can be attracted by wild citrus, or orange jasmine or boxthorn hedges. “No matter what’s around you … I think eventually psyllids are going to find a way to your grove,” Page observes.
Meanwhile, the state Department of Citrus has re-launched the family of brands featuring the tagline “There’s Amazing Inside.” It is highlighting “The Amazing 6” qualities of Florida Orange Juice: Flavor, Vitamin C, Potassium, Folic Acid, Hesperidin, and No Added Sugar.
It’s also revamping the industry mascot Captain Citrus through a partnership with Marvel. “The new character will be linked with Marvel’s popular Avengers characters in a series of custom comic books that will also help to convey the values of the Florida citrus industry and making smart choices about nutrition,” says Doug Ackerman, DOC’s executive director. “Through this, Captain Citrus will transform from a Florida-only asset to one that is useful globally.”
Orange juice continues to be “the number one fruit juice at the breakfast table,” he says, based on a DOC survey. “Americans continue to drink every drop of Florida orange juice produced.”
Florida citrus production fell to 156.2 million boxes in 2012-2013, the lowest it has been since 1989-90 with nearly 154.2 million boxes, according to Florida Citrus Statistics 2012-2013, the latest citrus report released by U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. Polk County led citrus production that year with 24.5 million boxes. It reflected a nine percent decline from 171 million boxes in 2011-12. A box is about one and three fifths of a bushel.
For the Story family, this season was “disappointing,” Victor says. “I’m glad it’s behind us.” The 68-year-old, who has weathered citrus challenges for 50 years, believes HLB will likely be similar to the citrus burrowing nematodes growers have fought all his life. “I think we’ll be dealing with this greening disease the rest of my life and my sons’ lives. We will learn how to cope with it,” he asserts. “Too many people are working too hard not to come up with some solutions.”
The company’s 15 percent expansion includes 334 acres of juice oranges that should be planted by July next year. They have diversified with peaches and cattle, although those holdings are minimal, and are participating in the Fast Track program by New Varieties Development and Management Corp. (NVDMC). As Kyle, president of Polk County Farm Bureau, says: “You’re either all in, or all out.”
story by CHERYL ROGERS
photo by PEZZIMENTI