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Greening disease stumps Florida's citrus industry

Dr. Mike Meadows of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Cooperative Agricultural Pest Survey program examines citrus leaves for signs of greening disease in Plantation.

Associated Press (2005)

Dr. Mike Meadows of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Cooperative Agricultural Pest Survey program examines citrus leaves for signs of greening disease in Plantation.

WIMAUMA — When citrus grower Travis Council heard that a potentially devastating citrus disease had descended on Florida, he increased his insecticide use to prevent citrus greening.

Like many growers, he searched for the bugs that pass the greening disease between trees, and he monitored for the symptoms: yellowing leaves, smaller fruit and falling fruit.

Still, like many growers, he thinks his groves have been infected.

"I'm sure it's there. It's in every grove," he said.

Growers have been gathering across the state for meetings about citrus greening, which was discovered in Florida three years ago. Last week, several Hillsborough County growers traveled to Polk County to learn how to stave off what extension agents are calling an endemic disease.

"It's probably one of the toughest that's come along in a long time," Council said.

Council first noticed some yellowing leaves in his Wimauma grove this summer. It could be malnutrition, but it could be greening.

To help prevent its spread, he's fertilizing more because healthy trees have been found to be more resistant. But between the increased insecticide, fertilizer and monitoring, it's costing him more to run his business. That's not good at a time when oranges are bringing in smaller profits.

"It's definitely had an effect on our bottom line," he said.

Louis Haverlock, a grower in Balm, was faced with the same dilemma. He has decided to focus on monitoring the trees and spray only once a year.

"It's expensive," he said. "We try to do the best we can with the budget we have."

He said it's one of the scariest citrus diseases because it has the potential to put farmers of small groves out of business.

"Maybe they can't afford the extra $80 to $100 to spray each acre," he said. His business, Lou Ross Citrus Inc., has about 800 acres of trees.

The Florida Legislature has recognized the threat that greening is to the citrus industry. Legislators voted to allocate $2-million in the 2008-09 budget to citrus pest and disease research. Much of that will go toward greening.

Still, the answers are coming slowly. There's still no inoculation or sure way to stop it, and a genetically resistant tree might not be developed for 10 years, researchers say. But the growers are patiently waiting, saying that's how it works in agriculture.

"Of course we all wish the answers could come faster, but we're hopeful we'll know something soon," Council said. "That's just kind of the nature of agriculture. We'll hopefully conquer this pest, and then another one will come across the border."

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2443.

Greening disease stumps Florida's citrus industry 10/16/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 16, 2008 4:32am]
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