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Bitter Times for Florida Citrus

PHOTO: Citrus fruit infected with canker is too unsightly to be sold, and the bacterium that causes it weakens the trees and makes their leaves and fruit drop prematurely. Photo courtesy of  http://www.aphis.usda.gov
PHOTO: Citrus fruit infected with canker is too unsightly to be sold, and the bacterium that causes it weakens the trees and makes their leaves and fruit drop prematurely. Photo courtesy of http://www.aphis.usda.gov
March 2, 2015

BARTOW, Fla. - Once the centerpiece of agribusiness in Florida, the state's citrus industry is now in crisis. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, crop forecast estimates for oranges, which supply most of the nation's orange juice, call for only 103 million boxes to be produced this year.

Florida Department of Citrus spokesman David Steele says that marks a dramatic drop from just a decade ago.

"The entire industry is very, very concerned about the production trends," says Steele. "As recently as 2003-2004, we were very close to 250 million boxes. That's an incredible decline."

A decline that's mostly due to a deadly insect-borne disease from Asia called Huanglongbing, or HLB, more commonly known as greening. The malady infects the trees by discoloring the citrus and producing fruit that is misshapen and bitter. The trees eventually die.

Over the past nine years since greening was discovered, Florida has lost about a third of its citrus farming acreage to the disease.

The Florida Department of Citrus says the state's citrus industry employs more than 60,000 people and provides an annual economic impact of nearly $11 billion. Steele says growers can only watch as their groves are devastated.

"There are no cures right now," Steele says. "There is no silver bullet. Having said that, there's hundreds of millions of dollars being invested in research. Some of that is focused on finding what we would think of us as a cure."

Also affecting Florida's top crop is America's declining taste for orange juice. Studies show OJ sales at record lows. But Steele says supply is still meeting demand.

"Americans continue to drink literally every drop of orange juice that Florida growers can produce," Steele says. "So, the declines in consumption are not outpacing the declines in production and right now, if Americans wanted more Florida orange juice there would no where for them to get it."

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently announced his department would contribute $30 million in federal funding towards the cause, and Florida's Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam recently asked state leaders for another $18 million to combat the greening epidemic.

There's even been discussion about genetically modifying citrus to harden it against the disease.

Phil Latzman/Stephanie Carson, Public News Service - FL