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Florida citrus industry celebrates good news in troubled times

by Chip Carter | December 06, 2009
TAMPA, FL -- After a decade of unrelenting bad news, the Florida citrus industry finally has reason to celebrate this holiday season.

Since 2006, Florida has been unable to ship to other citrus-producing states and U.S. territories due to a virulent, once-fearsome canker that infected groves and resulted in slowly withering trees and blemished fruit.

However, research proved this year that the canker cannot be spread by fruit; in October the U.S. Department of Agriculture ruled that shipments of Florida citrus could resume to California, Texas, Arizona, Louisiana, Hawaii, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam and the Northern Marianas Islands.

The good news is an island in otherwise rough waters. Contracting production acreage, atypical weather patterns, competition from increasingly popular Spanish clementines, rising production costs and, especially, the looming specter of huanglongbing, also known as citrus "greening" disease, mean that these are still tumultuous times for Florida citrus growers and packers.

In October the USDA released its initial citrus crop forecast for the 2009-10 season, estimating that Florida will produce 136 million boxes of oranges, a 16-percent decrease from last season. The forecast for early and midseason varieties is projected at 69 million boxes; Valencias are projected to total 67 million boxes. The USDA also is predicting that Florida will harvest 19.8 million boxes of grapefruit in 2009-10, down 9 percent from 21.7 million last season. For Florida specialty fruit, the USDA is predicting 4.9 million boxes of tangerines and 1 million boxes of tangelos.

"This is a solid number for Florida citrus growers," said Michael W. Sparks, executive vice president and chief executive officer of Florida Citrus Mutual. "At 136 million boxes, we suspect the prices growers get for their fruit will increase - and that's crucial to cover high production costs as they continue to battle serious diseases such as greening and canker."

"Once again Florida growers are expected to produce a quality crop," added FCM President Fran Becker. "Despite many challenges, Florida growers continue to be the best and most efficient citrus producers in the world."

They are doing that job in an increasingly hostile climate.

Huanglongbing, commonly called HLB, has now been reported in all 32 Florida counties that produce citrus. It spreads quickly, carried by the tiny Asian citrus psyllid, and once a tree is infected, the only recourse is to destroy it.

"It's a terrible disease, and many people now think of canker as the common cold, where HLB is the cancer," said Mr. Sparks. "That's a horrible analogy, but [HLB] can be that devastating to the entire nation's citrus as well as Brazil's. This is the fight of fights, and we all need to work together."

While other citrus-producing areas -- especially Texas -- have raised a clamor about the return of Florida product to their shelves, when it comes to HLB, there is an across-the-board consensus. Greening, like politics, has made for strange bedfellows, turning competitors into brothers-in-arms. Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, said that California grower- shippers have made peace with the USDA ruling to allow shipments of fruit from Florida to resume, and are now committed to joining with Florida citrus producers to fight HLB.

"We have worked with our friends in Florida over the past few years to resolve this issue, and we are very comfortable with the USDA's decision," Mr. Nelsen said. "As a result, we can now work with Florida growers on something that is much more important: huanglongbing."

Said Mr. Sparks, "It is good to see that Florida Citrus Mutual and our brothers at Texas Citrus Mutual and California Citrus Mutual all understand how devastating this disease can be so we can go to Washington, DC, and work together to try to acquire research dollars and more early-detection funding. We have HLB and the psyllid in every one of our 32 producing counties in the state of Florida; unfortunately we might be the perfect test lab to carry on the research."

Recently growers from California toured Florida groves affected by HLB. "When growers from California walk through our groves and see huge front- end loaders literally snap an infected tree and take it to the ground and destroy it with this year's crop still on the tree - [Florida] growers are saying, 'I can't even wait until February or March and harvest this crop, I can't take a chance' - you just see their eyes turn to saucers," Mr. Sparks said. "We've got the fight of our lives right in front of us."

Florida grower-shippers have an opportunity to up the ante in the battle against HLB. On Nov. 16, the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services mailed ballots to growers across the state as part of the State Citrus Research Order Referendum. The referendum asks growers if they want to continue to tax themselves to support citrus research.

In November 1991, Florida citrus growers voted to enact a research order commonly referred to as the "box tax" to help fund research. The assessment has taken on an increased level of importance in the past decade as diseases like HLB and canker appeared in Florida groves. Over the past three years, the Florida citrus industry has robbed Peter to pay Paul, diverting funds from marketing efforts to fight canker and HLB. Growers vote to renew the box tax - or not - every six years. All ballots must be in by Dec. 9.

Mr. Sparks said that he does not have a read on how the growers might vote, but "the ones I have chatted with are very supportive," he said. "You hate to say it, but we really don't have another option -- the boats have been burned."

A one-cent per box assessment would generate $6 million next year for HLB and other research. Mr. Sparks said that money could be leveraged to generate additional state and federal grants.

"We have ripped through the heart of the marketing programs, took a third of their budget out over the last two years. Hopefully this referendum will lessen that need," Mr. Sparks said. "The grower and commission will have to decide what they can afford for marketing, research & . Hopefully it will let the marketing issues and funding stand on its own as we question and debate ways to combat HLB. It is hopeful Florida citrus growers will not have to tap those marketing dollars. But if you can't save the trees, you can't have the crop - then what's the need for long-term marketing or advertising?"

Increasing competition from Spanish clementines is another front in the Florida citrus war. After weather wiped out the Florida orange crop in the late 1990s, clementines proved a popular replacement. Consumers embraced the small, seedless, easy-to-peel fruit -- and its popularity has continued to grow.

But David Mixon, chief marketing officer for citrus giant Seald Sweet International, stated: "Clementines are cannibalizing oranges and grapefruit." Prior to the canker-related quarantine, Florida tangerines enjoyed a sizable market in the United States, particularly in California. Mr. Sparks is hopeful that this market will return, but there is also a new weapon in the Florida arsenal to combat the Spanish clementines.

Florida has numerous restrictions on the planting of clementines. But after a quarter-century of research, the University of Florida's Institute of Food & Agricultural Sciences has introduced its first new cultivar, the Sugar Belle, a cross between a clementine and a Minneola tangelo. That product is the first in a coming wave of new UF-produced cultivars that will become available over the next couple of years, according to Fred Gmitter, the university's professor of citrus genetics and breeding most responsible for the new variety.

The Sugar Belle "gives us another opportunity," Mr. Sparks said. "It's a consumer-attractive piece of fruit, limited seeds, easy to peel, consumer friendly in appearance and taste. Here's another opportunity for Florida citrus growers, along with the ability to ship our fresh fruit again -- that was welcomed news, great news -- certainly the most positive note we've received. We have lived through freezes and diseases, families and generations have moved the whole crop south, there are many growers who are actually replanting, and here is a new variety that can really supplement our industry. It's another excellent piece of fruit for the consumers. I wouldn't be surprised if that catches on and becomes part of our portfolio for our fresh fruit market."

Florida citrus is a $9 billion annual industry. Some 560,000 acres are devoted to growing citrus in the state, and the industry employs roughly 76,000 people.

(For more on Florida citrus, see the Dec. 7, 2009, issue of The Produce News.)