Abandoned groves spread scourge of ‘citrus greening’

Abandoned groves spread scourge of ‘citrus greening’

Abandoned groves and foreclosed properties across Central Florida that were purchased by land speculators during the housing boom have become breeding grounds for a disease wreaking havoc on Florida’s $9 billion-a-year citrus industry.

Called “citrus greening,” the disease attacks and kills trees like a “canker on steroids” and makes oranges and other fruit taste bitter and salty. Since the first infected tree was discovered in South Florida in 2005, it has spread like wildfire, growers say. Today, citrus greening has been found in all 32 citrus-producing counties in Florida and is racing across most of the state’s 554,000 acres of groves.

“Greening has the potential to be the most severe threat to our industry,” said Nick Faryna of Faryna Grove Care & Harvesting, which manages about 1,800 acres of citrus in north Lake County. “There’s no light at the end of the tunnel. There’s no magic bullet right now.”

The bacteria that cause greening are generally transmitted by small jumping insects called Asian citrus psyllids that carry the disease from tree to tree like miniature hypodermic needles. And because citrus trees in abandoned groves and foreclosed properties are being neglected, the disease has proliferated and threatens nearby commercial groves, according to citrus experts.

“We estimate that every citrus tree in commercial groves in the state is within a maximum of one mile of the disease,” said Bob Norberg, a deputy executive director for the state Department of Citrus.

Crackdown on ag exemptions urged

The blight is worse than canker, growers say, because citrus greening slowly weakens and eventually kills the trees, whereas canker mostly damages the fruit and the tree. Abandoned and unmaintained properties are a particular concern because the property owners are not aware of the dangers of the disease or cannot afford to treat the trees to prevent it, said Ryan Atwood, Central Florida citrus extension agent for the University of Florida.

Central Florida has about 32,528 acres of abandoned citrus land in Lake, Orange, Osceola, Polk, Seminole and Volusia counties, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A grove is considered abandoned generally when the trees have not been cared for or harvested in the past two years.

Florida has no specific rules for growers to control or eradicate greening, also known as Huanglongbing (HLB) or yellow dragon disease.

Before the disease was discovered, growers harvesting fruit typically spent about $800 annually to treat an acre of citrus trees. That cost has more than doubled to fertilize and spray pesticides to protect from citrus greening. The disease is difficult to detect in its early stages, and leaf samples have to be sent to a laboratory for diagnosis.

“Some landowners will say that’s just too much money,” Atwood said.

The state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has started encouraging counties to allow landowners to continue receiving an agricultural exemption for two years after destroying neglected citrus trees. Ag exemptions dramatically reduce a landowner’s property-tax bill.

Billy Teal, a production manager for Heller Bros. Packing in west Orange County, which tends about 3,500 acres of citrus in Florida, said property appraisers should be aware of the disease and crack down on landowners who receive an ag exemption and have only a small number of citrus trees they don’t harvest.

Some counties, including Lake, have established citrus-health-management areas, where growers within a designated area all agree to spray within a two-week period.

“If everyone sprays together, then it can help eradicate it,” Atwood said.

‘This one is the worst’

Andrew Meadows of Florida Citrus Mutual said Florida growers who have had to deal with freezes, hurricanes, competition from foreign growers and canker in recent years say the incurable disease is a particularly big blow to the industry.

“There’s a lot of concern out there, because unchecked, this could run roughshod over the industry,” Meadows said.

In Umatilla last week, Frank Rogers stood on the edge of a large citrus grove he tends for Faryna Grove Care and sliced open a Valencia orange affected by greening. The orange was much smaller than the healthier oranges, and the tree’s leaves were yellowish.

“We need an answer to this thing,” he said, shaking his head.

But when asked whether Florida should mandate that landowners eradicate untended or unharvested citrus trees, he said: “That’s a tough one to answer. It’s their land, so how do you tell someone to do this or do that? But on the other hand, citrus is a $9 billion industry in Florida.”

Citrus-industry experts say 2 percent to 3 percent of the state’s citrus trees die annually because of pests, bad weather or age. But since greening invaded Florida, 4 percent to 5 percent of trees have been lost each year.

Scientists with the state Department of Citrus are researching ways to stop the spread, including engineering tree varieties more resistant to greening and canker.

The state Legislature enacted a law last year that allows growers to be assessed up to 3 cents per 90-pound box of citrus to pay for disease research, particularly greening. The current assessment is 1 cent; however, those funds were going toward marketing. Money from the higher assessment, which growers asked for, will go to the Citrus Research and Development Foundation. The higher assessment still has to be set by the foundation before taking effect.

For consumers, citrus greening undoubtedly will bring higher juice prices because of less availability of state-grown citrus — including oranges, grapefruits and tangerines — along with higher costs for growers to replace trees that have been lost.

“I’ve seen floods, hurricanes, freezes and cankers. But this one is the worst,” Teal said. “We have to learn to live with it.”

mcomas@tribune.com or 352-742-5927

Florida Pest Termite & Lawn Care Services

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