Aid in the wake of greening


| Citrus Growers Offered Financial Incentive to Remove Diseased Trees |

Joe L. Davis Jr. is a committed citrus grower who raises mainly Valencias for orange juice. His Avon Park-based citrus operation spans 2,500 acres in Polk, Highlands, Hardee, and DeSoto counties. When he found 80 acres no longer were profitable, he decided to clear the land. “It’s the right thing to do for the industry, and for your neighbor. You prevent psyllid infestation,” Davis explains.

“We’re waiting, frankly, for better rootstocks … new development in research, new tools,” continues Davis, a board member of the Lake Alfred-based Citrus Research and Development Foundation.

As Florida’s citrus industry battles greening disease, controlling the Asian psyllid that spreads the disease is critical. “It is vital to the future of our industry, in particular in Polk County, which is primarily made up of small growers,” explains Kyle Story, vice president of The Story Companies in Lake Wales and president of the Polk County Farm Bureau.

There are 133,947 acres of abandoned citrus in Florida, according to a report released September 18 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in cooperation with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS). Some 8,046 acres are in Polk; another 1,543 acres are in Highland, and another 2,566 are in Hardee. Abandoned acres decreased 52 percent in Highlands from the previous year, the greatest decrease statewide.

Removing unproductive trees can be costly. Growers may need to spend hundreds of dollars per acre at a time when their income is already reduced. So, in an attempt to protect the citrus industry, the government is offering an incentive to destroy groves no longer producing. Through the Citrus Health Response Program (CHRP) Abandoned Grove Initiative, land can be revalued at $50 an acre, potentially allowing grove owners to recoup their cost over time. In unincorporated Polk County, for example, land valued at $3,000 would be taxed at 76 cents per acre instead of $45.52 an acre. In unincorporated Highlands County, the reduced rate would be 80 cents per acre, down from $32.38 on agricultural land valued at $2,000 an acre.

“It’s costly to push (remove dead trees from) a grove. It takes time to re-fertilize the dirt, to get it back to ‘ready-to-plant’ status,” says Polk County Property Appraiser Marsha Faux, who is a Polk County Farm Bureau (PCFB) member.

Faux has decided to extend greenbelt tax exemptions available to growers who agree to remove their unproductive groves. The exemptions previously were available for three-year periods; now they are available for five-year periods. She’s recorded some 1,075 acres in the program.

Andrew Meadows, director of communications for the Lakeland-based Florida Citrus Mutual, the largest citrus grower cooperative in the state, says the decision is a good one. “Abandoned groves are a big problem for us,” he explains. “Removing as many of those abandoned groves around the state as possible is a real paramount goal.” Property owners who want a tax reduction for 2015 should have their diseased trees removed and burned by Jan 1, advises Faux.

The deadline to apply for agricultural designations in Polk County is March 1. “The exemption goes with the owner, not the grove,” she adds. “They (the landowners) have to apply. It’s not automatic.”

Highlands County Property Appraiser Raymond McIntyre says the CHRP program is helping preserve the citrus industry. “It [the psyllid] is a real major problem for all the groves,” he says. Clearing abandoned property has made it easier for other growers to keep the psyllid in check, he explains. He currently logs 10,170 acres in the CHRP program.

In Hardee County, Property Appraiser Kathy Crawford says her staff works with growers having trouble to extend the greenbelt tax exemption “even to the point where some of the trees may be dying.”

“We make all those options available,” she says, referring to CHRP. “Not everyone wants to take advantage of it.” She has 114 acres in the program.

To qualify for the tax break, growers need to notify FDACS’s Division of Plant Industry that they are no longer going to maintain the grove. They then agree to remove the diseased trees and that they will not re-sprout. Afterward, they take the agreement to their county property appraiser, who may grant them a reduced tax rate for agricultural use through CHRP Abandoned Grove Initiative.

“Dealing with the abandoned grove is not going to cure greening, but it is an important part of trying to deal with the disease and get those abandoned properties off the landscape,” says Callie Walker, bureau chief of Pest Eradication and Control, part of FDACS’s Division of Plant Industry. “We are the perfect state for pest and disease. We have the right climate and conditions … We have a lot of international ports.”

There are more than 20,000 acres in the program under 561 compliance agreements statewide, Walker points out. The initiative began in 2009.

Citrus greening is a bacterial disease that attacks the vascular system of citrus, misshaping the fruit and potentially killing trees within two years. Florida’s citrus industry has a $9 billion economic impact each year. “We have to overcome a lot of hurdles to be successful in the long term against greening. This is one of the top priorities,” says Story, who has 60 acres in the CHRP program in the Babson Park and Lake Wales areas. “We currently have plans to replant in either citrus or peaches within the next 12 months … The program works.” He says the program gave them time to find the best suitable use for the land. “It’s a painless process,” he adds.

“I think it’s a critical program to help get rid of some of these abandoned groves,” says Ellis Hunt, Jr., president of the Lake Wales-based Hunt Brothers, Inc. and the Citrus Research and Education Foundation Inc. in Lake Alfred.

It is just one step in the right direction, however. “It’s not the total answer. It’s not going to save the industry. It’s certainly going to be a big benefit,” adds Hunt, a Florida Citrus Commissioner and PCFB board member.

Keeping groves from becoming re-infected is a challenge. “It’s important that we’re able to keep the psyllid populations as low as possible in our area,” says Les Dunson, president of Dunson Harvesting in Winter Haven.

As the state grapples with the abandoned grove problem, state officials are planning to spend $1 million in U.S. Farm Bill revenues to remove old groves that otherwise may not be removed. The goal is to protect producing groves nearby. Walker says they are considering different types of removal, including new technology, to clear the land in the most efficient and cost-effective way. Considering bidders who would recycle the wood, she explains, as biofuel “is part of what we’re looking at.” Until a long-term solution presents itself for growers facing citrus greening, the CHRP program is a valuable tool to aid in effectively managing the disease.

CREDIT

story by CHERYL ROGERS