Editor's Note: This article is the first 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.
Citrus greening disease remains an obstacle for Florida citrus growers, more than a decade after its devastating debut, and growers persist in finding ways to work around it.
Along with techniques to combat the disease on a daily basis, new varieties - and particularly ones that show tolerance of greening - have garnered interest.
"We're constantly, as an industry, looking towards different products," said Andrew Meadows, director of communications for Lakeland-based Florida Citrus Mutual.
Seedless mandarins - such as Halos from Los Angeles-based The Wonderful Co., and Cuties from Pasadena, Calif.-based Sun Pacific - are a hot market, Meadows said.
Fred Gmitter, a breeder at the Lake Alfred-based Citrus Research and Education Center at the University of Florida, said the interest has been brewing for a while.
"The fresh fruit growers in Florida have really had their teeth knocked down their throats, if you will, by clementines that were first coming in from Spain and now the Cuties and the Halos down in California," Gmitter said.
Those varieties don't grow well in Florida, however, so a similar product has been the Holy Grail for breeders in the state.
Four years ago, they found Bingo, a greening-tolerant mandarin variety with an early market window and a deep orange color, much darker inside than the popular California varieties, Gmitter said.
"(It) peels easier, beats the pants off it for flavor, and matured earlier, so our citrus growers, when they saw this variety ... several began to say, 'Wow, Bingo, we got it. Finally we have the variety that we need, we have the winner, we can do this and we can compete against California and fight back against the big giant.'"
The original Bingo trees didn't develop any symptoms of greening, also known as hounglongbing (HLB) in their first nine years, though they are starting to show some now. No one can say what will happen in the future, but Gmitter said growers have been sufficiently intrigued to take a chance.
"Because of the very high quality of the fruit and all the attributes that it has, our fresh growers have taken a leap of faith and they've propagated, they've ordered over 150,000 trees of Bingo, so they're planting now," Gmitter said. "Two years from now there's going to be some Bingo fruit in the marketplace."
Nate Jameson, owner of Lake Panasoffkee, Fla.-based Brite Leaf Citrus Nursery, also has a positive outlook on Bingo.
"When we look into the future our crystal ball is always cloudy, but at this point today, to me, I think it has the potential to really become an outstanding variety," Jameson said.
"There's a tremendous amount of interest in growers about the Bingo," Jameson said. "There's been an awful lot of people express interest in it, both nationally and internationally as well as locally ... I think that the interest in it is very strong, and I think it will remain strong unless we learn something that we don't know."
Competing against Halos and Cuties would be no small task, of course.
"That's a huge challenge," Gmitter said, "but things change."
Gmitter noted the drought and labor issues that have plagued California and also suggested that timing could give Florida a foot in the door.
The vision of making an effect in that heavily branded market might seem a bit fanciful, but Gmitter sees it as a long-term possibility.
"Can we take on the giant tomorrow? No, it's impossible," Gmitter said. "We don't have the volume to even think about it.
"I can tell you that those large corporations in California are looking at these new varieties that we're producing in Florida, they're aware of them, they understand that there's an earlier-season opportunity that we might have that they won't have unless they can get this variety," Gmitter said. "That all remains to be seen how that plays out."
Another greening-tolerant variety developed at the Citrus Research and Education Center is called Sugar Belle.
It and Bingo ranked second and fourth, respectively, on the Bureau of Citrus Budwood Registration's list of mandarins propagated this year.
Originally released by the research center in 2007, Sugar Belle resembles the Minneola but - in addition to its tolerance to HLB - it matures earlier and has better flavor, Gmitter said. An uptick in orders for Sugar Belle began about two years ago and isn't slowing down.
"Now there's a push, more and more citrus growers are going to be planting Sugar Belle, and within five years from now there will probably be over 1,000 acres of this variety planted," Gmitter said.
Sugar Belle flopped in its original release because it came out right around the same time HLB started causing major concern. The one grower that did buy the trees at that time, however, let them live after they became infected when they were 2 years old. Now 10 years old, the trees are still beautiful and productive, Gmitter said.
Both with their points of appeal, Bingo and Sugar Belle meet different needs for growers.
"Sugar Belle matures later than Bingo, and until now has a longer proven track record against HLB; Bingo is a hopeful, but not yet proven, variety," Gmitter said in an e-mail. "Sugar Belle fruit packinghouse rejects could go to the juice plant, while Bingo fruit likely are too delicate to make the trip by truck to the juice factory."
Winter Haven, Fla.-based William G. Roe & Sons, which sells under the Noble brand and recently exited the juice business to focus on fresh fruit, produces mostly tangerines but also has Sugar Belle on the product list on its website.
Despite all the challenges in the industry, company president Quentin Roe considers the future promising because of the new citrus varieties his company is selling.
"(They) are dynamically better than the old seedy varieties we used to have," Roe said. "Easy to peel, great juice content, great flavors, good brix, the eating experience is exceptional.
"We're at the very fledgling, early side of this new industry, if you will, but the results have been outstanding," Roe said. "The retail and consumer acceptance have been very, very good, and it's encouraging us to plant more acreage as fast as we can."