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Citrus growers seek more money to study latest menace, yellow dragon

TALLAHASSEE — Florida's $9.3-billion citrus industry could be wiped out in just a decade if a virulent Chinese disease known as yellow dragon is left unchecked, the executive director of the state's Citrus Department told lawmakers Tuesday.

"If a cure is not found, production of citrus will fall off the map," warned Ken Keck, the Florida Citrus Department chief.

Keck told the Senate's Agriculture Committee that the citrus industry decided last year to divert about $20-million in advertising money to fund research into the disease, also known as citrus greening. But, he said, the industry needs more help from the state this coming budget year.

"It's a major disease with the potential to wipe out the whole industry," grower Bob McLean said.

McLean, of J.E. McLean and Sons, works about 400 acres in Hillsborough County. He says the disease threatens his livelihood. He hasn't found it in his groves, but farmers predict that there soon will be no unaffected areas in Florida.

"There's no doubt that there needs to be more done," McLean, 72, said. "There's literally thousands of people affected by whether our industry survives. I know it's going to be difficult to get the money to do what we need to do, but nevertheless it needs to be done."

Craig Meyer, the state's deputy agriculture commissioner, said the threat of the disease is serious. However, his department believes the industry might be able to survive if researchers and officials figure out how to contain the disease, replant groves with specially grown disease-free trees and eradicate the bug that spreads the ailment.

When it infects a tree, the disease blotches citrus branches yellow in a dragonlike pattern, hence the name "huanglongbing," which translates as "yellow dragon" in Chinese.

The disease is the third blow for a struggling industry:

• First came citrus canker, which blemishes fruit and makes it virtually unfit for grocery-store sale. The state removed about 80,000 acres of commercial groves to contain the disease, which doesn't kill the tree. The state cut down homeowners' trees as well, embittering residents in urban areas.

• Second: the back-to-back hurricane seasons in 2004 and 2005 wiped out about 100,000 more acres.

• Then, in 2005, officials identified the greening disease in Broward and Miami-Dade counties. They suspect it was brought from China and entered the state through a seaport or airport.

The state now has about 600,000 acres of citrus, compared with about 800,000 in 2000. Meyer said research in Asia and South America as well as the University of Florida should help the industry beat the disease. He said the bugs that infect the trees hate guava, so UF is bidding out a contract for a company to figure out how to spread the "essence of guava" on citrus trees.

"There is a doomsday scenario," Meyer said. "But that's only if we're not doing anything. And we're doing something."

Grower Jay Sizemore, of JayMar Produce, said he hopes lawmakers and others realize how important the industry is to the state.

"It's a stabilizing factor in the economy," Sizemore, 60, said. He has about 170 acres of citrus in Hillsborough. "Citrus is a big deal," he said. "And there needs to be a lot more done unless people want to let the groves potentially all die."

Marc Caputo can be reached at Times staff writer Jessica Vander Velde contributed to this report.

Citrus growers seek more money to study latest menace, yellow dragon 12/09/08 [Last modified: Friday, December 12, 2008 1:56pm]
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