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Florida Citrus Industry Not So Fruitful, Plagued By Disease

Melrose citrus farmer Marty Werts has been lucky. Unlike many others, his grapefruits have escaped the devastation of citrus greening.
Melrose citrus farmer Marty Werts has been lucky. Unlike many others, his grapefruits have escaped the devastation of citrus greening.

Marty Werts considers himself lucky.

His grapefruits have been untouched by citrus greening and citrus canker, which have had devastating effects on the Florida citrus industry in the last decade.

The latest Florida grapefruit season, from October 2014 to September 2015, had the lowest grapefruit utilization, an estimate for how many fruit from the grove are actually being used, since the 2004-2005 season.

The last season produced 12.9 million boxes of fruit, each about 85 pounds, as compared to the 12.8 million boxes of fruit produced a decade ago, according to an analysis of United States Department of Agriculture data.

Production numbers dropped so low between 2004 and 2005 because of disastrous hurricanes that moved across the Indian River citrus belt, ripping up trees and spreading citrus canker to grapefruit groves along the east coast and up the state. The canker was so bad that growers were required to destroy the infected trees as well as surrounding trees, said Benny McLean, a third-generation citrus farmer.

“The acreage declined, and a lot of growers were reluctant to plant back grapefruit,” McLean said.

McLean also said that grapefruits are more susceptible to canker than other citrus fruits.

The grapefruit industry rebounded slightly after 2005, but now it is back right where it was 10 years ago - without the natural disasters as the culprit.

Marisa Zansler, the economic and market research director for the Florida Department of Citrus, has been tracking grapefruit’s decline in production from an economic standpoint.

"In terms of the decline in production for grapefruits, we’re really seeing the impact of citrus greening," Zansler said. "We’re seeing the fruit drop has increased significantly, so the yield per box of grapefruit has decreased significantly."

She said these factors increase the cost of production and limit the industry's profitability.

"For the citrus industry right now, it’s sort of a perfect storm in terms of production," Zansler said.

She also said that for all citrus, trees are dying faster than they are being replanted, which is reflected in the USDA Commercial Citrus Inventory Preliminary Report.

Zansler said there is still hope for the industry. One-half of all fresh domestic grapefruit still comes from Florida, and citrus health management areas in South Florida are implementing mitigation strategies.

“Those are going to be the strategies that are going to reverse this trend,” Zansler said.

In the 1996 and 1997 grapefruit season, the maximum production of grapefruits was 55.8 million boxes. Production declined by 77 percent since that high point, according to analysis of USDA Citrus Fruits Summary reports.

Marty Werts' farm is the exception.

He bought his organic certified farm about 12 years ago, just about the time when citrus canker was spreading like wildfire up the state. Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Jeanne and Wilma helped spread canker from 10 Florida counties to 25 Florida counties, according to University of Florida Extension research.

Werts' grove is located in Melrose, almost 20 miles northeast of Gainesville. It is one of the most northern citrus groves in the state that Werts knows of. Isolation has played to his advantage because the farther away his grove is from sick trees, the less likely they are to become infected.

He said spreading citrus diseases is a similar process to humans spreading illnesses.

“When you’re in the room and everyone has the flu,” Werts said, “you’re going to get the flu.”

He said it is only a matter of time, however, until his grove is exposed to citrus greening, which has no cure.

The Florida State Legislature allocated $9.5 million toward citrus greening research between the 2013 and 2014 fiscal year budget, according to the FDOC.

Doug Bournique, the executive vice president of the Indian River Citrus League, hopes these efforts will prove fruitful for Florida citrus.

The cost of growing grapefruits and oranges per acre has more than doubled over the last decade, Bournique said.

He said growers are using more fertilizers to keep their plants healthy to mitigate the effects of citrus greening.

“Growers can’t keep up with the cost of production,” he said. “It’s a difficult ride in the industry right now, and people are doing anything they can to keep it alive.”

Bournique said what the industry really needs is a cure for citrus greening.

“We’re putting a lot of hope into it,” he said. “We need a break.”

For consumers, this decrease in production does not mean less product for consumers. This is because consumers are eating less and less grapefruit each year.

In 2012, United States grapefruit juice consumption was 0.2 gallons per person, as compared with 0.6 gallons per person in 1999, according to the FDOC.

The FDOC cites downward sales trends, “higher prices, increased competition from other beverages and reduced brand advertising, all exacerbated by a slow economic recovery,” as additional challenges to Florida citrus.

From 2012 to 2013, the Florida citrus industry had an overall economic impact of  nearly $10.7 billion to the state and provided over 62,000 jobs to Florida’s economy, according to a UF study.

"Once upon a time we said this industry was worth $9 billion," Zansler said, but it is now worth much more.

"The citrus industry provides very significant economic support for Florida. The boating industry uses the citrus industry as a benchmark," she said. "To me, that’s very telling."

Shayna is a reporter for WUFT News who may be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news