LAKE WALES, Fla. – Citrus has always been synonymous with Florida.
The orange adorns the state license plate. The University of Florida’s football stadium was named after an orange magnate. There is even a county called Citrus.
Throughout the decades, the citrus industry has always stood strong – through freezes, hurricanes and rampant development.
But now the $9 billion industry is facing its biggest threat yet, putting at risk the state’s economy but also its very identity. Blame a mottled brown bug no bigger than a pencil eraser that carries a lethal disease.
In China, where the problem was first discovered, it’s called huanglongbing: the yellow dragon disease. In Florida, it’s known simply as greening.
It arrived here inside an invasive bug called the Asian Citrus Psyllid, which carries bacteria that are left behind when it feeds on leaves. The tree continues to produce usable fruit, but eventually disease clogs the vascular system. Fruit falls, and the tree slowly dies.
The psyllid isn’t native to Florida, but it is believed to have arrived from someone who perhaps unknowingly brought a slip of a tree from Asia. Some think it then spread on the winds of hurricanes a decade ago. There is no cure for greening, and no country has eradicated it.
All of that has Florida’s growers in a frenzy to find a way to stop it.
It feels like you’re in a war, said Ellis Hunt Jr., whose family owns 5,000-plus acres of orange groves.
Hunt estimates he’s spending $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. Nearly all of the state’s citrus groves are affected in varying degrees by greening disease, 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.
Experts say that if a solution isn’t found, Florida’s entire citrus industry – with its 75,000 jobs – could collapse. 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.