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Scientists And Farmers Work Together To Save Florida's Citrus Industry

Scientists And Farmers Work Together To Save Florida's Citrus Industry

by Kristen Desmond LeFevre April 2018 Also on Digital Edition

Vero Beach’s Riverfront Packing Company is in the heart of the Indian River District—a 200-mile-long swath of land from Daytona Beach to West Palm Beach that Riverfront’s president and CEO Dan Richey calls “the ultimate grapefruit land in the world.” 

From November to March, the packing house’s loading bays receive truckload after truckload of freshly picked grapefruit from Scott Family Citrus’ 4,000 acres of nearby groves. The machinery and employees inside the A-frame steel building are busy as they size, grade, polish, dry, wax, label, pack and ship what looks to the untrained eye like an endless supply of grapefruit. It’s an industrial setting, but the smell is heavenly—a zesty, verdant sweetness hangs in the air as the freshly picked fruit bump and roll along conveyor belts, chutes and lanes, traveling through a streamlined process that relegates small or blemished fruits to the juicing trailer, and sends larger, more eye-pleasing fruits into cartons that will carry them to fruit markets worldwide. 

While the supply looks endless, to Richey, the inventory of grapefruit is anything but unlimited—and thanks to citrus greening disease, it’s getting worse by the year. 

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“In the late 1990s, we were shipping 10 million cartons of grapefruit a year to Japan, nine-million cartons to Europe. But this year,” Richey says, shaking his head, “we’ll be lucky to ship 700,000 cartons to each of those markets.”

Take a closer look at the fruit rolling by on Riverfront’s machinery and you start to see what Richey means: small grapefruits that you’d swear are limes, pouring into a bin destined for the juice plant. Richey pulls one out, holding it up between his thumb and forefinger. “This is the effect of citrus greening right here,” he says. “It’s irregular shaped. It’s green. It’s tiny.” He tosses it back to the bin. “This one never had a chance,” he says.

That steadily filling bin is a troubling symbol of the existential threat that Florida’s citrus industry faces today. Growers and researchers agree: If a cure for citrus greening isn’t found soon, it could mean death for the state’s most iconic industry.

Florida's Citrus Industry
Grapefruit affected by greening are relegated to conveyor belts bound for the juice trailer.
Photography by Libby Volgyes

Fruitful Beginnings

Florida grows more oranges than any other region, except Brazil, and leads the world in grapefruit production. There are nearly 4,000 citrus groves comprising more than 74 million trees on 437,000 acres of land across Florida, and the fruit produced is processed by 19 citrus packing houses and 12 juice plants. Each year the industry notches out around $10 billion in revenue and generates close to $1 billion in tax contributions that help support schools, highways and health care.

Beyond mouse ears and palm trees, the orange is Florida’s most beloved symbol. But despite its iconic status, citrus is not indigenous to Florida. Spanish sailors traveling with Ponce de León planted the first orange trees in St. Augustine in the mid-1500s. A French count named Odet Philippe introduced the first grapefruit seeds near Tampa in the early 1800s. 

Florida’s sandy soil and tropical climate suited the transplanted trees. Like the snowbirds that would follow them in the centuries to come, citrus put down roots. By the late 18th century, you could find wild citrus in any Florida forest, and in newly cultivated groves from the Gulf of Mexico to the Treasure Coast. By 1950, citrus had become Florida’s signature industry, turning out more than 100 million boxes of fruit annually. By the 1990s, the harvest regularly surpassed 200 million boxes, with an all-time high of 244 million boxes in 1997 to 1998.



Citrus in Crisis

Today, the state’s citrus crop is less than one-third of what it was 20 years ago. Private estimates had predicted that Florida’s groves would turn out 75 million boxes of oranges and six million boxes of grapefruit this past season—slated to be the best crop in a decade. The actual numbers fell far short of that forecast: 45 million boxes of oranges and 4.5 million boxes of grapefruit, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). That’s the second worst season on record for oranges, since the 1944 to 1945 season produced just 42 million boxes. Grapefruit growers aren’t faring much better, with the worst production on record since the 1918 to 1919 season.  

“Florida continues to face its lowest citrus production in more than 75 years,” says Shannon Shepp, executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus—a state agency that handles the marketing, research and regulation of all things citrus. “This industry remains in crisis.”

A portion of that crisis is due to Hurricane Irma’s September 2017 landfall.
The storm knocked unripe fruit to the ground, uprooted trees and left groves in standing water for weeks—resulting in a $760 million loss in revenue, according
 to economists at the University of
Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

However, the longer-term problem is citrus greening: A disease so deadly it has decimated every other citrus region where an outbreak has been diagnosed. But Florida’s growers—long known for their grit and resilience—are doubling down on the industry they love, betting that with the help of science, their groves will be the first to survive.

Bugging Out

Chinese citrus growers who identified the disease in the early 1900s called it Huanglongbing (HLB), or “yellow dragon disease” because of the distinctive yellow leaf color it causes. The disease is spread by the Asian citrus psyllid: a sap-sucking insect the size of a grain of rice. Like the citrus trees they feed on, psyllids are not Florida natives, landing in the U.S. around 2000 as stowaways on plants shipped through the Port of Miami. Psyllids aren’t fast fliers, but they can float on the breeze as easily as pollen does, and some scientists think their rapid spread across Florida may have been boosted by the winds generated in the 2004 quadruple punch of Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne.

When psyllids feed on citrus shoots and leaves, they inadvertently infect trees with the HLB-causing Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus bacterium. It invades a tree’s vascular system, constricting key nutritional pathways like an arterial plaque, wasting root systems and preventing fruits from accumulating sugar. Trees with advanced HLB yield stunted, shriveled, sour fruits, producing juice that’s unpalatably bitter. Without specialized nutritional support and care, an infected tree will die in three to five years.

Riverfront Packing Company
Dan Richey, president and CEO of Riverfront Packing Company.
Photography by Libby Volgyes

“We knew we were probably destined for HLB when psyllids were discovered in Florida. But we didn’t know what the impact of that would be.”- Dan Richey

Sour Market

It was the middle of 2005 when citrus workers near Homestead began noticing small yellow leaves on the new growth in their groves. Soon, other leaves lost their waxy green complexions, giving way to a variegated display known as “blotchy mottle.” By August, scientists with the USDA diagnosed the blight as the first Floridian case of HLB. Three months later, the disease was confirmed in Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Hendry counties. By 2011, HLB had infected groves in 37 out of 67 Florida counties—every county with a commercial citrus grove.

“We knew we were probably destined for HLB when psyllids were discovered in Florida,” says Richey, who is the former chairman of the Florida Citrus Commission. “But we didn’t know what the impact of that would be.” 

What Richey and his fellow citrus professionals now know is that Florida’s citrus groves were probably infected long before anyone realized it. “HLB is a latent disease, and it takes time to express itself fully,” Shepp explains. “By the time you know you have it in a tree, it’s already done a lot of damage.” 

Since that first diagnosis in 2005, HLB has cut the state’s citrus industry’s output in half, reducing revenues by $4.54 billion, according to data from the USDA. 

Jobs are down by about one-third, too. Florida’s citrus industry generates roughly 45,000 jobs statewide. Dr. Jacqueline Burns, director of the Florida Agricultural Experiment Station, says the cost of the industry’s downturn has severely impacted workers who make their livelihood tending to the state’s groves. “Citrus greening has cost the state $1.76 billion in labor income and more than 3,400 jobs,” Burns says. 

As production wanes and workers are laid off, groves, packing houses and juice plants have been forced to consolidate. “It’s a phenomenal amount of loss,” says Richey, whose Riverfront Packing Company employs 110 workers. “Whole economies of cities and communities have been adversely affected.”

It’s Not Easy Being Green

To keep the industry afloat, growers are trying everything from chemical cocktails that boost a tree’s nutritional base, to intensive heat treatments that reduce bacterial loads, to acid-based injections that lower soil PH. While not a cure, these targeted interventions are helping citrus trees cope with HLB’s symptoms and survive in spite of their infection.

Such methods are both time-consuming and expensive, with growers spending on average $1,800 more per acre to grow less fruit in the 2016 to 2017 season, according to research by economists at the University of Florida’s Citrus Research and Education Center (CREC). 

Case in point: Richey says that pre-HLB, an acre of successful grapefruit trees might turn out 600 boxes of fruit. With grove care costs of $1,500 per acre and profits of about $7 per box of grapefruit, that’s a net revenue of $2,700 per acre. However, today the Scott Family groves are producing around 300 boxes to the acre. Market price has increased, averaging a return of $15 per box. But the added HLB treatments have caused grove care costs to reach nearly $3,500 per acre, leaving a profit margin of just $1,000 per acre. “That’s not a good equation for economic sustainability,” Richey says. “We’re not far off of break-even right now.”

When the treatment protocols fail, growers must replace exhausted or dead trees with new stock. “We’ve got multi-generation growers whose grandfathers planted trees that should’ve borne fruit for 60 to 80 years,” Shepp says. “Now they’re lucky if they get 20 productive years out of them.” Still, Shepp says, there’s hope, emphasizing that in the 2016 to 2017 season, growers invested in replanting at a rate 16 percent higher than previous seasons.

That increase in demand for seedlings—plus newly imposed HLB-limiting nursery protocols—has made it difficult to get hold of fresh stock quickly. Orders that used to take three to six months for delivery now take 18 to 24 months. Add the three to five years it takes for a tree to bear fruit, and you begin to see the time crunch that Florida citrus growers are facing.

“This disease is really a question of economics,” says Fred Gmitter, a professor of citrus genetics and breeding at CREC. “We’ve got to keep growers and processors in the game as we continue to look ahead for silver bullet solutions. If we don’t give them a way to make money in the short term, there won’t be anyone left to plant and produce the long-term solution once we find one,” he says.

At Scott Family Citrus, the short-term hedge looks like HLB-tolerant Valencia oranges and lemons. Later this month, they’ll remove 800 acres of dying grapefruit trees and replant the land with what they know they can grow and sell: lemons and sweet oranges. “Even if infected, these varieties seem to show a tolerance enough to be economically viable,” Richey says. A recently-inked 15-year contract with Coca-Cola guarantees a price that escalates over time. “Now all we have to do is grow them,” he says. “What we have to do today is not plant what we can market, but what we can grow.” But long-term, Richey says Scott Family Citrus is committed to getting back to growing grapefruit—assuming they can.

“It’s like we’re in a car traveling over a bridge,” Richey explains. “But the bridge is still being built and it doesn’t yet reach the other side of this gorge. If the construction of that bridge doesn’t speed up, the car is going to go off the end.”

Citrus Industry
To ensure customers receive premium products, Riverfront Packing Company’s grading teams hand judge and sort grapefruit according to size and appearance.
Photography by Libby Volgyes

A Concentrated Effort

To try to complete Richey’s figurative bridge, the USDA has invested more than $400 million to study the disease. At CREC’s 600-acre research facility in Lake Alfred, some of that money is being used to find an answer to HLB’s challenges. Research projects include gene splicing to create HLB tolerant or resistant trees, netting structures to keep psyllids off trees and insect traps that use everything from pheromones to sound recordings. “Whether you’re a physiologist, a pathologist, a plant breeder, a food scientist or an economist—whatever you do with citrus, it’s all about HLB these days,” Gmitter says.  

Gmitter’s work at the UF-run center east of Lakeland is in genetics. He and his colleagues are making headway using CRISPR, a gene-editing tool that has been compared to the “find and replace” function in a word processing application. Using CRISPR, scientists can change a gene or delete it entirely. “If we can identify a citrus gene that interacts with the HLB bacteria, we can learn about the cascade that leads to a diseased tree. Then we can use CRISPR to do something about those genes and prevent that cascade from taking place,” Gmitter explains.

What makes the high-tech work unique is that CRISPR leaves no foreign DNA behind. That’s why the USDA recently ruled that fruits produced using CRISPR won’t face the same regulation as earlier generations of GMOs. 

That last bit is key: transgenic fruit would likely be required to carry a GMO label. Because CRISPR doesn’t borrow genes from other species, the method provides a potential solution that avoids GMO regulations, retains consumer confidence and gets HLB-resistant options into growers’ hands sooner rather than later.

One option that many orange growers are banking on is called Sugar Belle. “It really appears to be the most HLB-tolerant variety in Florida,” Gmitter says of the mandarin hybrid he developed using traditional horticultural methods. Because it transmits its HLB tolerance to some of its offspring, Gmitter is working to cross Sugar Belle with other citrus varieties in hopes of developing an even stronger tolerance. “We’re beginning to have options for growers to plant something other than the same old stuff that died out on them,” he says. 

For grapefruit growers, a dark red grapefruit called Star Ruby is showing promise in the face of HLB, despite being the first variety in the Scott Family Groves to show serious decline. Today, those trees have bounced back; whether that’s due to treatments or luck, no one can say for sure.

“We’ve doubled our production from last year to this year with this variety,” Richey says as he navigates his truck between two long lines of healthy-looking Star Ruby trees in Scott Family Citrus’ Wescott Grove in Fort Pierce. “We’re trying to determine why they’re responding and the other varieties aren’t.” 

One theory: Star Ruby is highly vegetative, rapidly pushing out new leaves and shoots. “It’s very prolific,” he says. “We think that it’s possibly outrunning the bacteria’s effect.”

But the question remains: how long can the industry hang on to the hopes of pampering certain varieties of HLB-tolerant trees until they die, and replanting new ones when the old ones fully succumb to the disease? Richey says the answer is “not very long.”

“If there is not a remedy found for grapefruit in the next three to five years, it’s going to be a massive challenge for the industry to survive,” Richey says. “The long-term sustainability without a real HLB remedy for grapefruit is questionable.”

Indian River District
Machines size, label and deliver grapefruit to specialized bays where workers hand-pack them into cartons.
Photography by Libby Volgyes

Room to Bloom

Back in the heart of Wescott Groves, Richey hits the brakes, sticking his hand out the window to point to an explosion of tiny white blossoms he has spotted. “Look at that bloom coming off those trees,” he says excitedly. “This is what gives you optimism when you’re in this business.”

Florida’s citrus industry has weathered its share of hurricanes, freezes, droughts, pests and diseases. Mother Nature puts groves and growers on their knees, and in time they recover. For a state whose identity and economy are so deeply entrenched in citrus, Richey says losing the battle with HLB is not an option.

“Florida is what it is partly because of this industry,” he says. “You don’t want to lose that heritage. It would be the equivalent of Washington without apples. Georgia without peaches.”  

And so, like many citrus growers, Richey says he and Scott Family Citrus are in the HLB fight for the long haul. “We stick with it because it’s what we do, it’s who we are, it’s our culture.” He pauses, surveying the grove around him through the windshield of his truck. “It’s going to be a risky venture to stay in this business,” he acknowledges. “We’re not fools, but we do have optimism. Sure, we have gotten our teeth kicked in. But Florida has the best conditions in the world to grow citrus. That hasn’t changed, and it never will.”

Get Into The Grove

It’s not just a slice of Old Florida; grove stands support the modern citrus industry. Some even offer grove and packing house tours or fresh fruit picking and juicing. 

Al’s Family Farms

2001 N. Kings Highway, Fort Pierce; 772.460.0556; alsfamilyfarms.com

Bob Roth’s New River Groves

5660 Griffin Road, Davie; 954.581.8630; newrivergroves.com

Hale Indian River Groves

1650 90th Ave., Vero Beach; 772.581.9915; halegroves.com

Robert Is Here

19200 SW 344 St., Homestead; 305.246.1592; robertishere.com 

Spyke’s Grove

7250 Griffin Road, Davie; 954.583.0426; spykesgrove.com

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