Citrus greening devastates Florida’s orange crops

ABC7 News at 4pm
Published: Jul. 21, 2022 at 7:29 PM EDT
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SARASOTA, Fla. (WWSB) - Citrus greening is devastating the orange production industry and orange growers are feeling the pain.

“Very concerned about it,” said Paul Meador, the President of Everglades Harvesting, Inc. “We are right now able to produce enough oranges to cover our costs of operation. It’s very close. Anything, a freeze, or a hurricane, would be enough to push us over the edge.”

Meador is a fourth-generation citrus grower in Hendry County and he is very worried about his future. For the first time, Florida has been surpassed by California in orange production. Meador said 15 years ago, Florida was producing more than 250 million, 90-pound boxes of oranges a year. This year, he said, that will drop to about 41.2 million boxes, a decrease of more than 83.5%. The state is expected to have its smallest orange crop in 75 years due, in large part, to citrus greening.

What was once a thriving business in Florida is now struggling and farmers are now being forced to get out of the citrus industry all together.

Citrus greening, a bacterial disease, is spread by a tiny insect, called the Asian citrus psyllid. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the disease has been present in Florida since 1998. It has infected more than 1.5 million orange trees in Florida.

Meador said more than 20 years ago, there were 900,000 acres of orange trees. Now, more than half been wiped out. This has Meador worried. “The citrus industry in Florida could go away if something doesn’t change soon,” he said.

Infected trees produce green, deformed, and bitter oranges. These are unsuitable for fresh fruit and juice. Once a tree is infected, it will likely not survive.

“We’ve had to figure out as growers how do we grow a citrus tree in the presence of this disease because there is no known cure,” said Ray Royce, the Executive Director of the Highlands County Citrus Growers Association. Royce said farmers are now trying to battle the disease and are working on ways to save the industry.

Some growers are now participating in the Citrus Research and Field Trial (CRAFT) program. This allows them to record their work and the results.

“We’re using individual protected covers to give the trees a couple of years to grow without becoming infected,” said Royce. Using tents to cover crops as well as covers over individual trees, growers are experimenting to see what will prevent the trees from getting the disease.

Florida has spent around $165 million to battle citrus greening. Worldwide, that figure is more than $1 billion.

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