More than just a symbol of hope, growers keep up the fight against citrus greening
THE ROUNDUP of news on the most recent harvesting season is in keeping with the citrus forecast’s unsteady tempo of up-and-down, down-and-up — but with the steady “can-do” attitude of growers. Things can get better, industry leaders say — but it will take research, lobbying, and collaboration to succeed. This “can-do” attitude, fueled by the actions needed to find a long-term solution, is acting as the collective symbol of hope for an industry under attack by disease.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently produced its final tally of the 2014-2015 Florida Orange Crop Estimate at 96.7 million boxes. That’s a slight increase from the June estimate. Early-mid varieties held steady at 47.4 million boxes, and Valencia oranges increased by 300,000 more boxes to a total of 49.3 million.
“It’s nice to have a bit of stability on this final number from the USDA,” states Michael W. Sparks, executive VP/CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual. “Because we all know what an up-and-down year it’s been fighting HLB and all of the market issues. Next year’s crop is already on the tree. and although I expect a season again filled with challenges, we have a lot to be optimistic about,” he adds. “The Florida citrus grower and all of the tremendous products we produce are here to stay.”
During the 2013-2014 season, Florida produced 104.7 million boxes of oranges. Citrus greening (a.k.a., HLB) continues to be a serious concern. Researchers are hard at work on finding solutions, and funds have come through to support their work.
“Never has the Florida citrus industry come together to fight against a disease like they have over the last decade,” says Kyle R. Story, vice-president of The Story Companies and current president of the Polk County Farm Bureau. “The research community around the world is working hard to find the solution — or solutions — to HLB in the long-term.”
In fact, a recent announcement that a $1 million University of Florida research project to fight citrus greening got the green light in the state’s budget was certainly encouraging. Nian Wang, a researcher with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, is working with a team to develop a product he hopes will come to the industry’s aid. “While the product will substantially help the citrus industry in the U.S. and around the world combat greening, it is not a complete cure, as of yet,” Wang said in an official statement.
The product is microbial-based and infused with patented plant-defense inducers and beneficial bacteria strains. A microbiology and cell science professor at the UF Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred, Wang will also work on creating greening-resistant trees through the use of a targeted genome engineering technology.
Citrus greening was first detected in Florida in 2005. Between 2004 and 2011, the state’s commercial citrus acreage and number of trees dropped by 28 percent. Greening was one of the primary causes — along with suburban development.
But in the interim, there are ways the industry can fight to help the business and take steps to minimize the damage greening has brought to the citrus industry. Kyle Story points to efforts growers are making — and can make — to deter damage. “In the short-term, it is the grower’s responsibility to support those in the research field and continue to find short-term cost effective solutions to stay in business,” Story says.
MANAGEMENT IN THE MEANTIME
“Psyllid control over large areas continues to be a challenge,” he observes. “Growers, particularly in Central Florida, must work together to coordinate spray applications to get the best coverage against the vector of HLB. Where we have active Citrus Health Management Areas (CHMAs) — volunteer coordinated spray areas — the groves are performing much better than in areas where every grower is not actively spraying for psyllids.”
If a grower is not going to continue in the business, there are ways to be a “good neighbor,” according to Story, such as through the use of the Abandoned Grove Initiative (http://www.freshfromflorida.com/Divisions-Offices/Plant-Industry/Agriculture-Industry/Citrus-Health-Response-Program/Abandoned-Grove-Initiative) in counties like Polk and Highlands. This program allows the landowner to remove an abandoned grove and keep their greenbelt ag tax status in the near term until they replant another crop.
Sparks agrees that in these days of growing citrus with HLB it’s important to work together. “Production costs are sky-high, and it takes a lot of capital these days to really aggressively manage your grove,” he points out. “This is a huge challenge for the small-to-medium grower, whose pockets are not as deep as the big guy’s. That’s why working cooperatively in CHMAs is so important for everybody, regardless of size,” Sparks says. In addition, maintaining a consistent work force is key. “With all of the focus on HLB, the fact still remains that our industry has to have an efficient and affordable work force,” Sparks states. “That’s why FCM is constantly working with members of Congress and the Department of Labor on how we can either tweak the current H-2A visa program to meet grower needs, or create a new guest worker program that works better.”
And keeping the citrus industry on a positive road is all-important, he says. “It’s tough right now to be a citrus grower for a number of reasons, both on the production and consumption side. But we’ve navigated plenty of challenges in the past, and growers have to remember the resiliency that built Florida citrus into a $10.6 billion industry that supports 62,000 jobs. We will make it.”
And there’s help. “Through the Citrus Health Response Program, the Multi-Agency Coordination (MAC) fund, the Farm Bill, and the appropriations from the Florida Legislature, we are doing well with this goal,” Sparks explains. “For those of you who attended one of our area meetings, you will recall that I flashed a card reporting there has been $108 million appropriated over the past five years for citrus research and support activities. That doesn’t even include what we will receive over the next few years. It is money that is now supporting the fight against HLB. It is nice to know our elected officials — the people who appropriate the money — understand the importance of Florida citrus.”
And let’s plant, he encourages. “We need to get more trees in the ground. Our industry needs to plant 20 million trees to get production back to the pre-HLB levels and to continue to support the citrus infrastructure in Florida. Think packing houses and processing plants. We need trees.”
“We have got growers on Mutual’s board right now who are replanting and feel the tools at their disposal justify the risk,” Sparks elaborates. “One grower has even gone so far as to say that his company has planted more trees in the past three years than they ever have. That’s good news, but, unfortunately, they are in the minority. We need short-term solutions to work in concert with the host of incentive programs out there.”
“Antimicrobials are looking as a viable therapy for diseased trees, and we as an industry expect streptomycin and oxytetracycline to receive approval from federal regulators soon. Other bactericides and zincicides may be on the way. Thermal therapy heat treatment is showing positive results at knocking down the bacteria as well. Scientists are also finding rootstocks that are tolerant to HLB . . . We must continue to push,” Sparks stresses. Quite a few government and private sector incentive programs are helping, and Florida Citrus Mutual is pushing a proposal that would tweak the IRS code regarding citrus tree planting that will provide another incentive for growers.
“The measure will allow growers to immediately expense the costs of acquiring, planting, cultivating, maintaining and developing a citrus grove and the associated drainage, irrigation, and infrastructure costs for a temporary period of ten years,” he elaborates. “It’s a game-changer.” There’s no question, the old days are probably just that— the old days. “It’s going to be a more streamlined industry, no doubt,” Sparks says. “The days of 240 million box crops are probably gone, but we can still produce significant amounts of citrus and continue to be a way of life for families and small and medium sized growers across Florida.”
And even if HLB is taken out of the picture, problems won’t go away. “I’ll tell you this … HLB is not the last disease that will challenge the Florida citrus industry’s future, and that’s why it is important to keep tapping our state and federal sources for funding,” he says. “Even when— not if — we beat HLB, Sudden Death, leprosis, CVC all can be found in Brazil and Central America. With increased trade, I fear it is only a matter of time before they reach our Peninsula. Intense research is part of our new reality. The research needs to include front-end interdiction protocols so we can keep contaminated products out of our seaports and airports.”
He encourages growers to stay involved, speak their minds, and let lawmakers know what’s needed. “I want to emphasize that all of the goals, proposals, and aspirations of our industry will not be possible without a sophisticated lobbying and communication effort spearheaded by industry organizations such as FCM,” Sparks adds.
“Through industry organizations, growers can establish relationships with our state and federal elected officials, the media, and the general public. This is key. The planting tax incentive is not going to happen without a focused lobbying effort, as well as support from our colleagues in California, Arizona, and Texas,” Sparks asserts. “I encourage all growers and allied businesses to join Florida Citrus Mutual. It is worth the investment. You cannot hold leadership accountable by looking the other way. Stay engaged. Participate.”
Officials at The Story Companies have a sober, but positive take on it all. “Cooperation between growers on all levels has never been so high,” Kyle Story says. “Everyone wants to help their fellow grower succeed by sharing information on what is working and not working in the groves.”
In addition, other varieties are presenting as problematic, he reports. “We are finding that any heavily seeded citrus fruit tree, such as grapefruit, tangelos, tangerines, murcotts (honey tangerines), mid sweets, and pineapple sweet oranges are not responding to treatments. The trees are becoming nonproductive and dying,” Story observes. “As this happens, we are removing these varieties and planting new rootstocks and varieties.” With that in mind, Story feels that better times are ahead. “The threat is serious and the situation cannot be spoken of lightly,” he concludes, “but the Florida citrus industry is resilient and will succeed in the battle against HLB.”
article by MARY TOOTHMAN