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Invasive insect threatens iconic Florida citrus

By Tamara Lush

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Aug. 24 2014 3:38 p.m. MDT

Updated: Sunday, Aug. 24 2014 3:38 p.m. MDT

The psyllid isn't native to Florida but is believed to have arrived from someone who perhaps unknowingly brought a slip of a tree from Asia. The bug was first spotted in the state in 1998, and some think it then spread on the winds of hurricanes. Greening showed up in 2005. There is no cure, and no country has ever successfully eradicated it.

All of that has Florida's growers in a frenzy to find a way to stop the disease.

"It feels like you're in a war," Hunt said.

Hunt estimates he's spending some $2,000 an acre on production costs, a 100 percent increase from 10 years ago. Much of that goes toward nutrients and spraying to try to control the psyllids. The trees that don't survive are pulled out of the earth and tossed onto a giant bonfire.

Nearly all of the state's citrus groves are affected in varying degrees by greening, and researchers, growers and experts agree that the crisis has already started to compromise Florida's prominence as a citrus-growing region. Florida is second in the world, behind Brazil, in growing juice oranges, producing about 80 percent of juice in the U.S.

This past growing season, the state produced 104 million boxes of oranges, which comprise the bulk of Florida's overall citrus crop. In 2003, two years before greening was discovered and prior to several devastating hurricanes, 243 million boxes were picked.

"This affects the whole state. The economic impact. The landscape. The iconic image of Florida and how it has drawn people here to smell the orange blossoms in the spring and look forward to that Christmas gift of fresh Florida citrus," said state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, whose family has grown oranges in Polk County since the early 1900s. "It will have a ripple effect throughout the economy if we can't get our arms around this disease."

Experts say that if a solution isn't found, Florida's entire citrus industry could collapse. Officials worry that some packinghouses and processing plants will have to close because of a lack of fruit. That could send the industry, with its 75,000 jobs, tumbling.

Compounding the problem is the timing of it: The disease coincides with an increase in foreign competition and a decrease in juice consumption as health-conscious consumers count carbs. In July, U.S. orange juice retail sales fell to the lowest level in 12 years for a second consecutive four-week period.

"We're in the fight of our life," said Michael Sparks, the CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual, the marketing and lobbying arm for the state's citrus growers.

Already, some are losing.

In the early 1980s, farmer Richard Skinner and his wife took over a small grove near Tampa planted nearly 100 years ago by his wife's grandfather. For years they thrived, selling boxes of oranges to large juice companies to augment their roadside business.

When greening struck his grove in 2011, Skinner realized he couldn't sustain the cost of chemicals and nutrients needed to keep the trees alive. Within two years, 2,600 trees were cut down — and the century-old grove was gone.

"We cried," said Skinner, who is 74 years old and doesn't look like a man who cries easily.

The war room in the fight against the yellow dragon is found in Lake Alfred, 30 miles southwest of Walt Disney World, in a nondescript cluster of buildings at the University of Florida's Citrus Research and Education Center.

There, some of the world's top citrus researchers — from the U.S., China, Brazil, India — slouch over microscopes and peer into makeshift greenhouses, hoping to unlock the puzzle that is greening. They talk about nucleotides and genomes like regular folks order a sandwich.

They understand clearly that there is no magic bullet — an injection or spray, for example — to cure the disease instantly. So they concentrate on two things: a short-term workaround that will allow existing trees to survive, and a long-term solution — possibly three to five years away — to develop a greening resistant tree.

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