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Greening continues to chip away at Florida citrus industry, but resilient growers fight back

The U.S. Department of Agriculture initial forecast for the Florida citrus season shows yet another in a series of declining annual production totals due to the effects of Huanglongbing, or citrus greening disease. But the Sunshine State’s industry overall remains strong with 532,000 acres in production, representing 65 percent of the U.S. citrus crop at an annual value of some $9 billion.

"The number shows HLB continues to affect our industry and growers are faced once again with a challenging season," said Florida Citrus Mutual Executive Vice President and Chief Executive Officer Michael W. Sparks. "The good news is that at this size crop, there should be upward pressure on prices."

The initial USDA forecast puts the 2013-14 Florida orange crop at 125 million boxes, down 6 percent from last season's 133.6 million boxes. By comparison, 2011-12 production was 147 million boxes and the 2010-11 crop tallied 141 million boxes. Over the last decade, excluding the hurricane-riddled 2004-05 and 2005-06 seasons, average annual production has been 157.5 million boxes.

The USDA projects 2013-14 early and mid-season varieties at 58 million boxes, down from 67.1 million at the end of last season, while the Valencia orange total is at 67 million boxes compared to 66.5 million in 2012-13. Grapefruit production is estimated at 17.8 million boxes down from 18.35 million. Projected fruit size is smaller than average, while projected drop rates are higher than normal.

Simple arithmetic shows the toll HLB is taking on the Florida industry.

"There is no question that this is an existential threat to the industry," state Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam said.

Some growers have lost as much as 40 percent of their groves. Tom Folsom, a grower in Thonotosassa, FL, has lost 1,200 acres of trees in the last three years.

The Florida Citrus Commission slashed its budget by $3.8 million from last year's $58.3 million due to declining revenues. The total includes $4 million for HLB research.

But while rising costs for mitigation and decreasing revenues have pushed some growers out of the game, few are giving up on the industry as a whole.

"It's just something we've got to live with, it's just another obstacle that we have in the citrus industry and we will continue to move forward," said Al Finch of Florida Classic Growers in Dundee, FL. "We've battled canker and freezes and greening is something that we are going to have to live with for a while. We're taking all of the necessary recommended steps for spraying and caretaking against greening and we're moving forward."

Florida growers are leaving no stone unturned in the fight against HLB. Recent and ongoing developments that show some promise (but no cure) include newly developed root stock that better tolerates greening; planting new trees that are raised in nurseries and thus not exposed during critical and more vulnerable early growing periods; nutritional concoctions that improve resistance; covering and heating trees; coordinated spraying for the tiny psyllid that spreads the disease; and the release of a tiny wasp that is a natural enemy of those psyllids.

In September, Bayer CropScience and the Florida Specialty Crop Foundation announced a three-year, $200,000 grant program for greening research at the Florida Citrus Research & Development Foundation in Lake Alfred.

More significantly, earlier this year, the Coca-Cola Co. announced it will spend as much as $2 billion to plant 25,000 acres of new orange groves in Florida -- about 5 million trees. As the owner of the Minute Maid juice line, the company's stake in the game is clear: some 96 percent of Florida oranges are used for juice.