Florida citrus fighting greening disease
This year, Florida oranges are hitting a record low production. With adverse weather conditions and the ever-present citrus greening disease, 2023’s crop is the smallest produced since World War II. However, the sector has proved its resiliency and is already working on its comeback.
Executive Vice President and CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual, Matthew Joyner, tells FreshFruitPortal.com that damage from Hurricane Ian, in September 2022, followed by Hurricane Nicole, are at the center of this year’s volume drop.
“Unfortunately, it (Hurricane Ian) really came across the heart of the citrus producing areas in the state. And so, as a result, we were down over 60%, probably closer to 70% in our anticipated production,” says Joyner.
The executive adds that this season finished up with a little over 17 million 90-pound boxes, a big contrast to last year’s 40 million boxes, as the hurricanes left barely any fruit on the trees.
Despite the smaller volumes, Joyner says that quality is still good, but that the storm’s lagging effects continue to impact the groves.
“We saw continued fruit dropping from the trees for weeks and maybe even months after the storm because they were beaten up so badly from the winds and then the flooding. And so it was not just the day of the hurricane blowing the fruit, but a continued loss of fruit as a result of that,” he explains.
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Production area has also decreased. This comes mostly from weather damage, but also from development, as Florida has a high influx of people moving in annually.
“If you're replacing trees that were damaged by the storms, you have 18 to 24 months to order a tree and get it in the ground because it takes that long to get trees from a nursery. And then another three to five years before they're in production,” Joyner says.
Additionally, he shares that a lot of those trees that had been replanted “just got wiped out by another storm before they ever became productive,” further stalling 2023’s figures.
“At our height, we produced a little over 300 million boxes and had probably 800,000 acres. So we're down roughly 50% in acreage. And quite a bit more than that, obviously, in production. But we still have a very large footprint in terms of acreage.”
Citrus greening disease: The sector’s biggest foe
Huanglongbing (HLB), also known as citrus greening, was introduced to Florida in 2005 by an invasive pest, the Asian citrus psyllid.
Since then, it has spread to all commercial groves in the state, hindering production as HLB causes an overall health decline in trees which, over time, produce less and less fruit.
In an effort to combat these devastating effects, growers are utilizing a combination of horticultural treatments and practices.
“There are some new therapies, plant growth regulators, and bactericides and other things that really moved the needle in terms of dealing with greening. They're not a cure, but have the ability to get the trees back up and healthy and productive,” says Joyner.
As for new cultivars, Joyner says that they have invested important amounts of money and time to breed resistant varieties. However, this is no easy task, and he explains that it will take some time to see final results.
“We're getting close. We have a lot more tolerant varieties, rootstocks, and scions that are more tolerant to greening, but we need a fully resistant variety. And we think that we're getting closer and closer to that through these breeding efforts,” he adds.