Saturday, September 22, 2018
News Roundup

Time runs out for last grove

ODESSA

The trees were so heavy with oranges that their limbs stooped to the ground, the scent of their blossoms distracting drivers who rolled their windows down. Their branches were so thick with leaves and clumped with fruit that deer would tangle their antlers in them. Adam Burchenal couldn’t say no 11 years ago when his grandfather offered him a job here, at Cee Bee’s Citrus Emporium.

In the beginning, he was the manager of the juice room. When Adam reported for work in the mornings, the sunlight was golden on the orange rinds. Some 15,000 trees painted long shadows on the 300 acres of farmland where Hillsborough County bumps up against Pinellas and Pasco.

He spent his days watching the oranges blur into a pulpy slush, scraping the dregs at the machine’s bottom into the best Popsicles he had ever tasted. Before a date, Adam would pick out a shirt and pants and leave them for hours in the juice room, his secret cologne.

But that was a long time ago, and now the juice Adam mixes with ice and protein powder and calls breakfast comes from another farm. The juice room has been shut down for years, ever since the trees thinned out and his grandfather realized they were losing money on every bottle sold.

Now Adam took a sip as he stood outside the family business on Boy Scout Road. The morning was darker and cooler than usual, an hour lost to Daylight Savings just the week before. He put his knee in the dirt, trying to tie up a banner that the wind kept flapping down:

STORE CLOSING

EVERYTHING MUST GO

Adam, 31, dusted off his hands and climbed into his truck. He needed to pick oranges. The Valencias ripen late; some were still dotting the trees. He had taken the Cee Bee’s website down, but two orders snuck in before it went dark. A reason to keep going, even if for just a while longer.

It is no secret that a disease known as citrus greening has devastated the Florida orange industry, and that a cure evades top scientists, who, even as you read this, are sealing petri dishes with cellophane and prayer.

Science is close to — if not a solution — a variety of work-arounds that allow orange trees infected with greening to live for years. Some experiments are bearing especially exciting results, trees lush with leaves and oranges, ready for sale.

But thousands of growers have already called it quits. Thousands more are living season-to-season with one eye on Lake Alfred, a small town east of Lakeland that’s become ground-zero for citrus greening experiments.

And Tampa Bay is about to lose its last true commercial orange grove.

In Adam’s mind, the downfall is an out-of-order montage. He doesn’t remember when they started growing lettuce, tomatoes, even pomegranates and kale to try to turn a profit. He’s not sure which year they began Frankenstein-like experiments in the groves, praying for oranges that looked, well — orange.

It was the end of the season, and the disease hadn’t left much. He drove past a mass grave of trees, long-dead and piled high.

Adam kept driving until he spotted a tree still bundled in leaves. He stood on his toes as he reached for the fruit, hanging on the canopy, almost out of his grasp.

• • •

We put it on our license plates, serve its juice at our visitor centers, smack "Fresh from Florida" on every carton we can; send our kids to Orange Grove Middle School, build houses in Citrus Park and sign leases in Citrus Village (a preferred apartment community!). We throw down at the Orange Bowl. Fight over where to put Tropicana Field.

Yet Florida is slated to produce only 45 million boxes of oranges this year. That’s one-quarter of what it was 10 years ago. It’s the lowest production since World War II. California now sells more oranges. Brazil sells more juice.

But those are not the numbers that keep Mike Sparks awake at night. The chief executive of Florida Citrus Mutual, the state’s largest organization of growers, Sparks knows that the true question isn’t whether we’ll solve greening.

It’s whether they’ll be anyone left to grow oranges when we do.

There were 76,000 jobs in the citrus industry — everyone from the pickers in the field and the flat-bed truck drivers to the packing-house barons and their receptionists — when Adam came to Cee Bee’s a decade ago. Now there are 31,000 jobs, a 59 percent drop.

Growers — people like Adam and his grandfather — have disappeared at a similar rate. Where there were once 8,000 in Florida, there are now 3,800.

"We’re getting down to a make-it-or-break-it for the Florida citrus industry," says Sparks, who was part of the Florida Department of Citrus team that put the orange on the license plate decades ago. He remembers celebrating, the high-fiving, the champagne. "Mobile billboards," they called the plates.

And now.

A quarter of Florida’s citrus acreage is gone. Twenty-five processing plants have become 12, and they’re not operating at capacity. The state has lost $2 billion in economic impact, and it would have lost so much more, except the price of oranges and juice have gone up for the consumer.

Initial reports for this season showed promise that, for the first time in five years, orange production would go up. Scientists cheered: Their research was paying off. Then Hurricane Irma knocked all that fruit off the trees.

"You have to be honest with the growers, you know: You’ve gone through the 10 most difficult years in Florida citrus, and there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and the industry will make it, but will they be a part of this future?" Sparks says. "Many of these growers are fourth- or fifth-generation with a sixth on the way. If you take the risk, if we win the fight against (greening), if we can keep all the infrastructure and processors going, it’s going to be financially rewarding.

"But that’s a lot of ifs."

Florida Citrus Mutual used to call downtown Lakeland its headquarters, with a building that took up an entire city block on E Orange Street.

About a year and a half ago, it sold its headquarters to Publix. Sparks now has a small office in a BB&T building in Bartow.

"We right-sized."

• • •

When Adam’s grandfather bought Cee Bee’s in the 1990s, it was much smaller and in a sorry state. The citrus trees were strangled by vines and crowded by overgrown oaks. The soil was starving. Heirloom trees wilted, listening for last rites.

The best land to grow oranges used to be in north and central Florida. The colder temperatures in the winters made the juice sweeter. But crop-killing freezes drove most growers south. Tampa Bay planted housing developments in their wake.

William Burchenal Jr., who was in his 60s and went by Bill, wasn’t the obvious buyer for this neglected grove. Once an electrical engineer for the Air Force during the Korean War, he made a small fortune in advertising and real estate.

He had never grown citrus, but he had admired it as a student at Eckerd College and the University of South Florida. And he had lived an adventurous life, traveling to five continents, sailboat racing to Cuba and playing the jazz drum. He did not plan to slow down now.

So he got down on his hands and knees and turned the grove around, enlisting the help of Les Dennison and his family. The Dennisons had been growing Florida citrus for 100 years, even cultivating this grove when it was first planted in the 1920s. In just a few seasons, the fruit came in. And the grove grew, parcel by parcel.

In the early days, it was just Bill and Les, picking oranges in the mornings, cleaning and sorting in the afternoon. At the end of the day, they would drive their haul out to restaurants, colleges and hotels.

Cee Bee’s soon supplied all the citrus for Pasco and Hillsborough public schools, and fresh-squeezed orange juice for Eckerd. The staff grew to 19. In 2002, Cee Bee’s came online. It started marketing oranges as a delicacy to down-wrapped northerners, until this was the bulk of its business.

Sometimes, Bill and his staff would get calls. "You sent me some green fruit," the customers said. But this was before this disease — huanglongbing, or HLB, as it was known by scientists — and Bill would patiently explain that they did not gas and dye their fruit like the oranges at the grocery store. There was nothing to worry about.

They survived canker, cold weather and the fitness generation’s realization that there are calories in orange juice. Bill fixed up a small house on the land, yards from a lake they shared with the Winn-Dixie family. He and his wife would sit on a bench swing and look out at the water after a long day’s work. Deer and turkeys darted through the trees, even panthers once in a while.

One day, Bill put his arm around Adam’s shoulders. They were on a family vacation to Italy, walking the canals of Venice.

Here he asked his grandson to join him at Cee Bee’s. Adam was born in Tampa, but had moved to Austin as a child while his father got his doctorate at the University of Texas. Adam had stayed there, earning a business degree at a small college in Austin and managing a bagel shop.

Now he saw an opportunity to be closer to his grandfather and escape a franchise for a family business.

It was 2007. Some of the trees at Cee Bee’s, like at most other orange farms, were starting to show symptoms. The leaves were a little smaller. Some of the fruit felt hard and fell off the tree too soon.

Bill Burchenal was worried. He was. But he had already saved the place so many times, and he reckoned he might be able to do it again, this time with his grandson.

He just didn’t realize what they were up against.

• • •

Upon re-entering the country after travel abroad, Americans are required to fill out a blue and white U.S. customs form, typically distributed in flight. While it is usually a coming to Jesus about how much was truly spent on souvenirs, there is a key question:

I am (We are) bringing

(a) fruits, vegetables, plants, seeds, food, insects: Yes or no?

How did greening, once the distant scourge of China, India and South Africa, make its way to Florida to destroy a signature crop and a way of life? Could it be because someone checked "no" when he should have checked "yes"?

This is something Michael Rogers, director of the Citrus Research and Education Center at the University of Florida, thinks about often. One day in 2005, he was sitting in a conference room, meeting with citrus processors, when his phone buzzed. He had a text:

"It is here."

In that moment, it felt as though a bomb had gone off, Rogers says now, the shock coming in waves. He and his colleagues had seen what greening had done to citrus around the world. The enemy had been lurking abroad for more than a century.

Citrus greening is a disease carried by the Diaphorina citri, a sap-sucking insect that’s of little threat on its own. Commonly called the Asian citrus psyllid, the brown-mottled bug tested negative for the disease when it was first found in Florida in 1998. Rogers believes the infection traveled separately, smuggled in a carry-on bag.

The thing to understand is that, when it comes to growing oranges, there’s no such thing as an "orange tree." Each variety — Valencias, navels, tangerines — is a forced marriage, often from two wildly different plants.

The rootstock, usually a stump with a healthy root system, is wed to a scion, typically a bud or a shoot. For instance: oranges sometimes sprout from roots designed by nature for lemons.

Orange growers love these unconventional unions because they can make a tree more resistant to cold weather; and, like a cook tinkering with a family recipe, growers take pride in creating their own breed of perfection.

All it took, then, was a one-inch piece of green wood — a twig — and a grower who wanted to bring his own variety stateside, to bring down the Florida orange. "I’ve heard people get caught at customs with it in their socks and underwear," Rogers says.

Once the disease was here, it was everywhere. Greening is so contagious that when one tree gets it, they all do. It took a few years for the symptoms to fully appear, years of dismissing problems as an off season or bad nutrition.

Then suddenly it was undeniable: the small leaves, streaked pale green or blotched yellow. The limbs so bare that you could see through each tree to the next one, skinny with the same sickness. The fruit came in too small, too hard. It fell to the ground too early. It shaded green. It tasted bitter.

More than one scientist has likened citrus greening’s effect on Florida’s orange trees to what AIDS did to a generation of humans in the 1980s, and it’s not hard to see why. The disease makes it impossible for the tree to stay healthy. The roots shrink and swell, unable to move water or nutrients up to the canopy. Think about trying to suck a blueberry through a straw. Without water, the tree can’t hold the oranges up.

At the same time, the leaves are converting sunlight into carbohydrates and sugar: photosynthesis 101. But with greening, they aren’t able to get the sugar into the tree’s circulatory system. It gets stuck in the leaves, becomes starch and messes up, well, everything.

At least 80 percent, and maybe more than 90 percent, of Florida’s citrus acreage is infected with greening. Once a tree is infected, there is no cure. You can rip it all up and start over; but unless the neighboring grove follows suit, and the one next to that, and that, and that —

It’s just going to come back.

• • •

The best fruit is toward the center of the tree. Adam almost disappeared inside of it, moving through the leaves with the instinctive ease of an animal. His Cee Bee’s hat was on backward, his sunglasses pushed up over his forehead. Adam can’t pick oranges with them on anymore; the tint disguised the green rinds as healthy.

He headed back to the store, the Valencias heavy in his picker’s bag.

Adam’s grandfather didn’t share the numbers, but it was obvious they were losing money. After greening came, Adam doesn’t think there was a year in the black. They used to send out "trailer-loads upon trailer-loads of citrus" a season, maybe 35, Adam remembers. "Now we’d be lucky to get five."

The concessions were many. They built a greenhouse for tomatoes and lettuce. They planted pomegranate and peach trees and bushes of blueberries, farmed kale, broccoli and turnips.

It took five years for Adam to persuade his grandfather to put in an ice cream machine, and they sold novelty orange cones for a few dollars apiece. They tried cutting down on herbicide and fertilizer. They turned off one of the two fans in the juice room. Then they started laying off staff. That was the hardest part.

Adam and his grandfather began talking with UF’s citrus scientists, as well as a few at USF. Researchers had ideas about experimental rootstocks and fertilizer regimens. Those efforts would allow trees to survive years longer and produce fruit as sweet and orange as they had ever been, as an HIV-infected person can now live for decades. The Burchenals said yes. They had nothing to lose.

Les’ son, Mike Dennison, had become the grove manager after his father passed away. He helped plant new rootstocks and tried different fertilizers and spray programs.

Mike tested something called Aqua-Yield, which makes the nutrients so tiny that they can slip through the shrunken roots.

Farming is a game of patience. New trees take years to grow, to bear viable fruit. Sick trees need time to get better.

Bill had high blood pressure and a tricky heart. A cold would put him out for six weeks. As his health faded in late 2016, he told his grandson, "If there is any way to keep it going, keep it going." But: "Do what you’ve got to do." He passed away three days after Christmas.

"One of his real regrets, one of his great disappointments," said Adam’s father, Ken, "is he wasn’t able to see it get to be sustainable, to be able to survive greening."

Ken moved back from Austin to help on the farm and look after his mother. That’s when Adam and his father first saw the numbers. Cee Bee’s was losing an astonishing amount of money, and had been for years. "Dad was able to swallow the bottom line," Ken said. "The rest of the family didn’t have the resources to cover it."

Adam and his father realized this would be their last season.

The fruit started coming in November. "Ironically," Ken said, "this has been the best year in a long time."

• • •

Early one morning on the last day of March, Jude Grosser, a plant genetics professor and citrus researcher, walked through the groves of UF’s Lake Alfred campus. Just 15 miles from Lakeland, its the staging site of the country’s best guesses to crush greening.

On one stretch of land, they grow orange trees under screens to keep out the Asian psyllid. In another grove, they’ve tied ribbons — blue, pink, green, striped — in a real-life paternity test of which variety has been bred with which.

Before greening came, Grosser was trying to develop oranges better-suited for not-for-concentrate juice. Now, he has been breeding sugarbells, a cross between a clementine and a honeybell. They have survived 14-degree winters, and he and his colleagues found that varieties tolerant of harsh environments do the best against greening.

"Our work is often like this: If after four years, two of these trees don’t have greening, why is that?" he said. "Are they the last two to get infected? Or are they different somehow?"

Climbing into his truck, Grosser eases through rows of cybrids: oranges whose nuclei have been replaced with that of another species, like a grapefruit. Out the window grows Cybrid 304, a big tangerine that’s easy to peel and crosses well with other oranges. They’ve grown so full that their branches scrape against the truck’s side as Grosser moves through them. "They’re all infected," he said. "But they don’t care."

This is the difference between immunity and tolerance. The UF team, the premier citrus researchers in the country, want to find a tree that’s immune to greening. But they also recognize that cure could be decades off. In the meantime, they’re chasing trees that are tolerant, growing vibrantly despite infection.

"That might be the best we’re ever going to get," said Fred Gmitter, a citrus breeding and genetics researcher who works alongside Grosser.

Part of what these scientists are trying to do is figure out why some varieties succeed while others don’t. They know, for instance, that oranges with seeds are more devastated than those without. In the beginning, honey murcotts didn’t stand a chance.

They’ve identified promising rootstocks that don’t lose their feeder roots like most trees do when first infected. But ask them why they are so successful. "We have no idea," Grosser says.

There are 2,000 genes that they can play up or down and see whether the tree fares better. But which gene is the right target? Are there five targets? "It’s like picking through that haystack and finding needles," Gmitter says, "but finding the right needles."

They know that replacing the orange’s NPR-1 gene, which affects the immune system, with the same gene from a mustard plant works wonders. A Hamlin orange tree with the swapped-out gene is tolerant going on year six.

That’s good news — great, even — except that it has historically taken scientists up to 20 years to determine if a tree is ready for commercial release. But given the urgency of greening, given the decimation, UF has been doing things differently. It is recruiting growers as researchers.

Beginning in the fall, and running through spring, UF hosts five displays of any trees in its pipeline that look promising. Growers are invited to come through and evaluate the sample trees, ranking the varieties they’d most like to try in the field. Then they’re given a clipping of the tree, and asked to send feedback.

Pete Spyke, a third-generation citrus grower and long-time citrus consultant, owns the roadside Orange Shop in Citra, 15 miles north of Ocala. The porch here is bundled with bushels of large, lovely fruit, almost technicolor in their orange hue.

Spyke says greening is not a problem for him anymore.

He was one of the first large growers to get involved with the fight against greening, traveling to China and South Africa on expeditions with scientists and other growers.

Spyke grew 30 different varieties, flooding them with fertilizer and water. He found the ones that worked: navel, Valencia, temple, page, nova, Minneola. He replanted more than once, bankrolled by the luxuries of money and time. And he doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

It’s the smaller growers who haven’t been able to hold on.

"They put their heart and soul into it," says Sparks, the head of the growers’ group.

"It’s just hard to accept that, you know. That not everyone is going to be a part of the Florida orange’s future."

The last one in Hillsborough tried to be, up until the end.

• • •

Back at the store, Adam shook out his bag of oranges. They tumbled onto a conveyor belt, slowly rolling toward a dripping wall, layering them with a light sweater of soap.

The fruit came out the other side spinning, knocking into each other as they headed for an air dryer. The excess water became puddles below the machine, now emitting heat and a motor roar. The Valencias appeared to glisten now, some like the Technicolor dream at Spyke’s shop.

Adam stood at one end of the machine, inspecting the oranges before their next spin. He picked one up, inspected it for a moment. Then wound up his arm and threw it over his shoulder. He picked up another, and he threw that one away, too. He didn’t look to see it land at the base of a tree, surrounded by other fruit that had missed the mark, that he had thought was healthy when he picked it but, in the end, was green.

How sad it is to be an orange that isn’t orange.

The survivors were packaged and sent to Nashville, Tenn., and Augusta, Maine.

"I’m going to miss this gig," a customer, Scott Archibald, was heard saying loudly from the adjoining store. He picked through tomatoes.

"Man, me, too," said the receptionist. Some of their customers had been oblivious to greening. The out-of-towners seemed the most in the loop.

"I’ll keep coming till the door’s locked," said Scott. The door swung shut behind him.

Adam was not sure what would come next, for him or for the land. The best-case-scenario was to sell to someone who wanted to make a go at oranges. But who would be crazy enough to do that, he wondered. Maybe the beekeepers who leased some land for their honey would want it. Or someone else who would keep this place rural, when so little else in the area still was.

Adam walked into the little office building he shared with his dad and the few remaining staff. His grandfather’s obituary was pinned to the bulletin board behind his desk. The two of them were so similar, he said: Both shaped like blocks, both hard of hearing, the same-sounding whistle. He tried to imagine what it would be like to see all of his grandfather’s trees ripped out of the ground. The thought was crushing, he said. Even worse than the disease.

Closing wouldn’t be a big, grand thing, Adam said. They would lock up the store at the end of the season, probably June 2. They would hold a goodbye-barbecue for their customers. Sell what they could of the equipment at an auction. Meet with buyers, until it was done.

And there was one more thing.

Deep in the farm sits that pile of dead trees so high and long that it takes several minutes to walk around it and a craned neck to see the top properly. These are the skeletons of all kinds of orange trees, most of them killed by greening. There is not a leaf on the bone-like branches, only weeds poking through them; no life except for the ants belly-crawling from soft hills.

Sometime during the rainy season, Adam and his crew will paint the pile with diesel fuel, and throw a match on top. They will burn it all down, back to the soil. The bonfire will take all afternoon. And there in the flames, for one last time, the trees will be orange.

Times photographer Gabriella Angotti-Jones contributed to this story. Contact Lisa Gartner at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @lisagartner.

     
         
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