Editor's Note: This article is the second in a three-part series about the Florida citrus industry and its continuing fight against huanglongbing. Part one focuses on new varieties that some consider promising. Part two examines how growers are combating the disease in their groves and comparing notes on methods. Part three discusses the outlook of members of the industry.

Before huanglongbing showed up, new citrus varieties like those created at the Lake Alfred, Fla.-based Citrus Research and Education Center might be studied for 15 or 20 years before being released.

That doesn't happen anymore, said Peter Chaires, executive vice president at Lakeland-based Florida Citrus Packers.

"We just don't have the luxury of time right now," Chaires said. "Certainly the research community is cognizant of that and sensitive to that, and they're trying to do the best job they can do but do it as quickly as possible, but it never seems to be fast enough. Everybody really needs the answers."

Quentin Roe, president of Winter Haven, Fla.-based William G. Roe & Sons, suggested that experimentation in the field has become the new standard both with varieties and with techniques meant to combat greening on a daily basis.

"There's probably 25 or 30 growers in the state, maybe more ... that have got significant little test plots, five to 10 acres, where they've got a lot of different experimental varieties on multiple rootstocks, trying to understand, in their own growing conditions, how things are going to work," Roe said. "There's a lot of tools in the toolbox right now. There's everything from soil enhancements to nanotechnology and spray material to (nutrition) ... bacteriacides, psyllid control, regular watering and fertigation.

"There's a lot of tools in the tool box," Roe said, "and there's only so much room in the budget."

Greening-tolerant rootstocks have become available in recent years, and this year bacteriacides targeting the disease were released to some excitement.

"The grower community was relatively mature about expectations because all the data that they'd seen said that ... it's not like a silver bullet - it wouldn't be dramatic, it would be helpful," said Tom Jerkins, president of Vero Beach, Fla.-based Premier Citrus and president of Lake Alfred-based Citrus Research and Development Foundation.

Even the possibility of some help got the attention of most everyone.

"My guess is 80% of the industry is using (the bacteriacides), and at least 80% of those folks are using them as much as they can according to the label, so pretty heavy buy-in this year," Jerkins said. "At the end of this crop year, probably out in May or so, everybody will (make) an assessment on how effective they were."

Dave Brocksmith, Florida citrus category manager for Vero Beach, Fla.-based Seald Sweet, said his company is one of many experimenting with various methods while itching for a long-term solution.

"Everything we're doing right now is just trying to buy time until we can cure this disease," Brocksmith said.

Another aspect of the industry that has adjusted is the willingness of growers to discuss their business practices.

"Growers learn as much from each other as they do from academic sources," Chaires said. "So if they notice that their neighbor is doing something that seems to be working quite well, they're usually very open in sharing among each other, 'Hey, I'm trying this and this worked but this didn't work. What did you do about this?' 'Oh, well I tried this.' Sometimes they can really gain a lot from those casual discussions."

Exchanges about methods aren't new, but the detail involved now is a result of the current climate.

"Growers have always enjoyed talking to other growers, but just due to the nature of our situation I think it's probably opened up a lot of those conversations more than it would have been before," Chaires said. "You'd always go by coffee shops and cafes in citrus-growing areas and see growers gathered around a table swapping notes, that's kind of always been a part of our industry, but now all of a sudden those conversations are more important than they used to be."

Nate Jameson, owner of Lake Panasoffkee, Fla.-based Brite Leaf Citrus Nursery, said the increased transparency is relatively recent.

"Much more of that is going on today than did just even five years ago," Jameson said. "HLB (put) Florida in survival mode. The ship's taking on water and it's taking on water a whole lot faster than we're bailing it out."

In Jameson's view, any time a disease threatens an industry, the initial reaction is denial, and Florida citrus went through that stage.

"I would say that it took us four to five years to begin to recognize that, okay, we have a huge problem and we do not have a good answer," Jameson said. "It took four crops, or four harvests, maybe five harvests, we continued to see our production decline, our boxes go down, our income go down, and our production costs going up."

Now more than a decade removed from the onset of the disease, growers have a more complete picture of what greening is and how to work around it, and many are sharing that knowledge for the sake of the overall business.

"We're not going to solve the problem individually," Jameson said, "and I think the industry recognizes that."

 
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