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Disease threatens Florida citrus industry

Orange groves at sunrise near Lake Placid in late April.
Published May 10, 2013

AVON PARK

Florida's citrus industry is facing extinction from a bacterial disease with no cure that has infected all 32 citrus-growing counties.

Although the disease, citrus greening, was first spotted in Florida in 2005, this year's losses from it are by far the worst. While the bacteria — which causes fruit to turn bitter and drop from the trees when still unripe — affects all citrus fruits, it has been most devastating to oranges, the largest crop. So many have been affected that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has downgraded its crop estimates five months in a row, an extraordinary move, analysts said.

With the harvest not yet over, orange production already has decreased 10 percent from the initial estimate, a major swing, they said.

"The long and short of it is that the industry that made Florida, that is synonymous with Florida, that is a staple on every American breakfast table, is totally threatened," said Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who helped obtain $11 million in federal money for research to fight the disease. "If we don't find a cure, it will eliminate the citrus industry."

The relentless migration of the disease from southern to northern Florida and beyond has deepened concerns this year among orange juice processors, investors, growers and lawmakers. Florida is the second-largest producer of orange juice in the world, behind Brazil, and the state's $9 billion citrus industry is a major economic force, contributing 76,000 jobs.

The industry, lashed over the years by canker disease, hard freezes and multiple hurricanes, is no stranger to hardship. But citrus greening is by far the most worrisome.

The disease, which can lie dormant for two to five years, is spread by an insect no larger than the head of a pin, the Asian citrus psyllid. It snacks on citrus trees, depositing bacteria that gradually starves trees of nutrients. Psyllids fly from tree to tree, leaving a trail of infection.

Concerted efforts by growers and millions of dollars spent on research to fight the disease have so far failed, growers and scientists said. The situation was worsened this season by an unusual weather pattern, including a dry winter, growers said.

"We have got a real big problem," said Vic Story, a lifelong citrus grower and the head of The Story Companies, which owns 2,000 acres of groves in Central Florida and manages an additional 3,000 acres, all of which are affected at varying levels. "It's definitely the biggest threat in my lifetime, and I'm 68. This is a tree killer."

Before this year, the losses and increased costs of fighting the disease had already taken a toll on Florida's citrus industry, which has been in decline for 15 years. In a 2012 report, University of Florida agricultural analysts concluded that between 2006 and 2012, citrus greening cost Florida's economy $4.5 billion and 8,000 jobs.

Some orange packers and small and midsize growers have sold their groves, razed them for development or simply abandoned them. Others have postponed replanting lost trees, which take five years to mature, until they know whether a cure will be found. Many more, including the largest growers, are doing what they can to survive; they say they are optimistic they can hold on long enough for researchers to find a treatment.

"This year was a real kick in the gut," said Adam Putnam, Florida's agriculture commissioner, whose family owns citrus groves. "It is now everywhere, and it's just as bad as the doomsayers said it would be."

But there was good news this week, too. Coca-Cola announced it would spend $2 billion to plant 25,000 acres of new orange groves. The company, which owns Minute Maid and the Simply juice brands, will buy fruit from two growers in Florida — one local and the other a Brazilian company that has invested in the state.

"To see such a dominant player in the beverage market double down on the future of orange juice in Florida is a real morale boost to the industry and a sign they have confidence we will find a cure for greening," Putnam said.

"Now there is a real sense of urgency," said Michael W. Sparks, chief executive of Florida Citrus Mutual, a trade organization for growers. "We are not doing research to publish a paper but research we can get on the back of a tractor."

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