By GARY PINNELL
Published: May 13, 2011
SEBRING – In 2006, the late Mason Smoak was driving by his family groves and spotted a yellow shoot of leaves among citrus trees that are normally dark green. It was where an Asian citrus psyllid had laid her eggs.
That was big news at the time, because it was among the first discoveries of greening disease in Highlands County.
Five years later, the big news is that citrus growers are now certain their industry will survive and do well, said Raymond Royce, executive director of Highlands County Citrus Growers Association.
“Greening was a game changer,” Royce said, “but growers have stepped up collectively to fight the disease, and collectively they have funded $12 million in research.”
Statewide, growers have funded $50 million, and last week, the Florida Legislature appropriated another $2 million.
A cure for greening hasn’t been found, but University of Florida scientists have developed treatments to kill psyllids – tan, grasshopper shaped bugs 1/8 of an inch long that feed on citrus leaves.
“There are a number of heroes,” Royce said. “A lot of credit goes to the scientists, but the other heroes are the growers themselves, paying a 25-cent tax on every box of fruit. And they are working together to fight this. They are saying, ‘I can’t do this like my father and my grandfather did it.'”
If one grower sprays one week, and his neighbor sprays three weeks later, psyllids simply move across the road. Royce said growers are coordinating their spraying to the two-week egg cycle of the psyllid.
“That dramatically reduces the population,” Royce said. New equipment reduces the size of the insecticide droplet. Growers are spraying more often, but using less chemicals. An alternative treatment – ladybug beetles, wasps and spiders, which eat psyllids and nymphs.
Florida groves are expected to produce 140 million boxes of fruit, according to a May 11 USDA estimate. That’s better than last year’s 133.7 million boxes, but only 40 percent of the 1997-98 bumper crop of 244,000 boxes.
Highlands produced about 20 million boxes in 2009-10, or about 15 percent of the state crop.
“We understand there has been a little more fruit drop and smaller sizes than initially expected,” said Michael W. Sparks, CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual. “This is still a quality crop and I think we came through the cold weather earlier this year better than expected.”
Cold weather and greening affected Florida’s east coast more than the central region, Royce said. The problem here was dry weather, which caused trees to drop some of their fruit before it matured, and decreased the size of fruit – and therefore won’t produce as much juice.
“Growers can get pretty good prices for their fruit today,” Royce said. “Of course, it costs more than to produce that crop. Fuel and fertilizer and chemicals are higher than ever.”
“The industry, though, is very healthy, for people that are approaching it in a professional, businesslike manner. It’s harder for the guy with one, small, 20-acre grove, who does it half heartedly, who’s taking minimal care of his grove.”