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Citrus industry fights for survival

Horticulturist Timothy C. Gast looks for citrus greening on a tree at the Southern Gardens Citrus grove in Clewiston. To fight greening, the new rules restrict the sale of seedlings.

Associated Press (2007)

Horticulturist Timothy C. Gast looks for citrus greening on a tree at the Southern Gardens Citrus grove in Clewiston. To fight greening, the new rules restrict the sale of seedlings.

When Michael Sparks, CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual, gives the state of the industry address Thursday at Florida's annual citrus conference in Bonita Springs, the 800-pound grapefruit in the room will be this:

State agriculture officials say that if there are less than about 400,000 acres of citrus groves in Florida, the industry will not be able to keep its packing houses and processing plants open. More than 500,000 acres, and the industry can sustain itself.

In which direction is Florida headed?

In 1998, Florida had 785,900 acres of trees that produced 13,583 tons of citrus.

Last year, Florida had 554,400 acres of trees that produced 7,236 tons of citrus.

The tipping point is creeping dangerously close.

"If we were to drop to 400,000 acres, would we start losing processing plants? Would the growers replant? There are so many what-ifs in this scenario," Sparks said last week. "Is it a concern? Yes. Is it being understood? Yes.

"There is certainly a level of urgency in the air, but not that we're going out of business."

To varying degrees, the state's citrus industry has been under attack from urban developers, hurricanes, cold snaps and canker for the past decade.

And the latest threat, citrus greening, adds a potentially bigger problem to the mix. A bacteria spread by insects that reduces a tree's production, destroys the fruit's value and can kill the tree after a few years, greening has been found in groves in almost all of Florida's 32 citrus-producing counties.

The only options growers currently have are to spray or destroy infected trees, although the Florida Department of Citrus is shifting millions of dollars into finding ways to combat the bacteria.

"We are in a very crucial period the next couple of years,'' said Craig Meyer, a deputy commissioner of Florida's Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. "If we get a breakthrough in dealing with greening, then I think the industry has a fighting chance. But it'll never go back to the number of boxes of the 1990s or acres of the 1970s."

To help in the fight, the state created a Citrus Health Response Program to ensure new trees are guaranteed to be disease free.

"Starting last January," Meyer said, "you can't sell a citrus seedling in Florida that was not grown in a secure facility. Nothing will work if you don't have healthy seedlings to replace the trees you lose."

If there is a silver lining, it's a thin one. As the supply of Florida citrus has dropped, the price growers can receive has risen. The average box of citrus brought $3.16 a decade ago; in 2006, a box brought $8.40.

That has also translated to higher prices for orange juice. Nearly 95 percent of Florida's orange crop is used for juice.

The Florida citrus industry has a $9.3-billion economic effect on the state and is tied to 90,000 jobs. Florida produces about 75 percent of the oranges grown in the United States and accounts for about 40 percent of the world's orange juice supply.

An orange is also on the state's license plate. And like alligators, palm trees and sunsets, citrus is part of what defines Florida.

As a boy growing up in Polk County, Meyer recalls being excused from school to tend to bonfires in the groves on freezing nights.

"The Spanish brought citrus here in the 1500s," he said, "and now it's woven into the fabric of so many communities.

"It's very important that we hold on to this."

Tom Zucco can be reached at

zucco@sptimes.com or

(727) 893-8247.

.Fast facts

Annual conference

The Florida citrus industry's annual conference is Wednesday through Friday at the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point in Bonita Springs. Events begin at 8 a.m. and include seminars by University of Florida and USDA scientists. For the agenda, visit www.flcitrusmutual.com.

Citrus industry fights for survival 06/06/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 9, 2008 7:51pm]
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