Citrus forecast projects slight decline; HLB funding announced

THE GOVERNMENT is intensifying the war on Huanglongbing, or HLB, as the disease tightens its grip on Florida’s citrus industry. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) projected Feb. 10 that Florida will harvest 103 million boxes of oranges this season, down two percent from last year, the lowest on record.

“I think that is good news that the crop is fairly stable from last season,” says Larry Black, president of the Lakeland-based Florida Citrus Mutual, the largest state citrus cooperative. “There is a lot of anecdotal evidence from growers that there may be further declines.”

“We still have a few months left in the season, but it is good to see the estimate stabilize a bit, especially in this challenging environment,” adds Michael W. Sparks, Florida Citrus Mutual’s executive vice president and chief executive officer.

On Feb. 9, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced $30 million in funding for 22 projects to help citrus producers combat HLB, with money earmarked for both short- and long-term solutions. Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam has called for $18 million in state funds. The funding, championed by state Rep. Ben Albritton and state Sen. Denise Grimsley, already has widespread support across the citrus belt.

“I would like to extend a ‘thank you’ from our entire industry to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for all that he’s doing to make sure our industry continues to produce healthy citrus products,” Sparks says.

“The state funds are going to really focus on the short-term solutions for growers, which is welcome news for the industry,” adds Black. As general manager of Fort Meade’s Peace River Packing Company, Black says that their business is continuing to plant trees. “We are thrilled we have some research funding to further the efforts of the industry,” he states.

February’s USDA report affirms January’s projections of lower yields. The USDA makes an initial estimate in September and revises it monthly until July. USDA’s Feb. 10 forecast for early, midseason, and Naval varieties remained unchanged, at 48 million boxes, a 10 percent drop from last season. A yield of 55 million boxes was forecast for Valencia, also unchanged from the January forecast. It signifies a seven percent increase from last season.

The February report projects 1.57 gallons of frozen concentrated orange juice per box, virtually unchanged from last year. Early-midseason juice is projected at 1.46 gallons per box, down four percent from last season, while Valencia juice is projected at 1.69 gallons, up three percent from last season. The forecast assumes similar processing relationships.

Florida’s citrus industry has an economic impact of $10.68 billion annually and supports some 62,133 jobs, shows a University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) report for 2012-2013 released in December.

Citrus greening was discovered in South Florida in 2005. Spread by the Asian psyllid, the disease disfigures fruit, causes premature fruit drop, and eventually kills the trees.

Citrus acres in Florida have plummeted from 845,283 in 1980 to 515,147 in 2014, according to USDA’s Commercial Citrus Inventory Preliminary Report dated September 18. Acreage declined from 82,577 to 81,810 in Polk County since 2011, the report shows. Polk County continues to be the state’s leading producer of citrus, followed by DeSoto, Hendry, Highlands, and Hardee counties.

The bulk of the federal funds to combat greening are being supplied through the 2014 Farm Bill. The Multi-Agency Coordination Group funded $7-plus million for 15 projects to provide short-term help. It focused on thermotherapy, or heat treatments; best management practices; early detection; and pest control. Some $23-plus million from USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture is designated for a lasting solution. More than $13.5 million was earmarked for UF, including funds for a bactericide to reduce citrus pathogens and recover fruit production, enhanced steam-generated thermotherapy, development of an HLBtolerant or resistant citrus cultivar, and antimicrobial treatment.

Scientists met in Orlando Feb. 9-13 for their fourth International Research Conference on greening. “There are research results emerging daily and they are being incorporated into grower trials and practices as appropriate,” says Dr. Harold Browning, chief operations officer of Citrus Research and Development Foundation, a Lake Alfred-based nonprofit. “A grower day is scheduled for March 12 at the University of Florida, IFAS Citrus Research and Education Center, Lake Alfred, to summarize the more practical outcomes of the meeting and hold discussions relating to emerging tools for HLB management.” The meeting is expected to focus on growers’ concerns, including lengthening the productive life of trees and cultural practices that help maintain tree health.

“As the Florida citrus crop has declined, the total grower funding available for research has diminished,” Dr. Browning points out. “State funding has been an integral part of the response to HLB, and, coupled with new federal commitments of funding, will allow the discovery, development, and delivery of solutions to Florida citrus growers.”


article by CHERYL ROGERS

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