Citrus greening disease or huanglongbing — HLB for short — has taken a toll on Florida’s citrus sales, but hope remains that the industry will survive and even thrive.
“We’re cautiously optimistic that we can produce a crop in an HLB environment,” said Andrew Meadows, director of communications for Lakeland-based Florida Citrus Mutual.
In the past decade, HLB has caused an approximately 21% decrease in the fresh citrus fruit market in the U.S. and about a 72% decline in the production of oranges, he said.
HLB has affected every Florida grower, said GT Parris, commodity manager for Florida citrus for Vero Beach-based Seald Sweet International.
“We are seeing drastic loss of yield over the last six years,” he said, adding that citrus greening has forced many citrus houses and growers out of business due to rising costs and loss of fruit.
Nonetheless, there always will be demand for Florida citrus, he said.
“I do not think we will get back to production (of) 10 years ago, but I think we can manage to sustain and possibly increase slightly,” Parris said.
Vero Beach-based IMG Citrus Inc. has experimented with mesh tree bags to protect young trees against psyllids and greening, said Barbara Baker, who handles sales and business development.
“We are reﬁning the bag design as we go,” she said.
“Although it is more labor intensive, this system allows us to signiﬁcantly lower chemical use and to protect against greening during the critical ﬁrst few years of the tree life,” Baker said.
Although investing in citrus has become more risky because of citrus greening, IMG president Michel Sallin said he believes in the industry and in Florida grapefruit.
“A solution to greening will be found, and when that day comes, we’ll be ready,” he said.
DLF International, Fort Pierce, Fla., is making progress against the disease, said Doug Feek, president.
The company first noticed symptoms of HLB six or seven years ago and has been learning to cope with it, he said.
“It was very difficult for a couple of years,” Feek said. “We had to change our growing techniques a bit.”
It was discovered that Asian citrus psyllids, the vector that delivers the disease, affect the trees by interfering with the delivery of nutrients.
“We’ve learned to put nutrients on differently,” Feek said, and the trees have gotten healthier.
“We don’t seem to see the same issues that we saw six, seven or eight years ago,” he said.
Oranges have responded best.
“The past few years, we really haven’t felt the effects of greening on oranges,” he said.
Now the company is learning how to fight the disease in grapefruit and tangerines.
Even some groves where growers did not change their growing practices look better today than they did three or four years ago, Feek said.
Volume at DLF dropped from just over 1 million cartons a year to as low as 600,000 but now have come back up, Feek said.“It just takes time.”
Meadows of Citrus Mutual said solutions to HLB are being sought by scientists in their labs and by growers in their groves.
Some tools have been developed that enable trees to have good yields even if they’re infected by HLB, he said.
For example, growers are planting new trees on root stock that has been shown to be tolerant of HLB, many nutritional programs have been developed that give the trees the nutrients they need, and some growers have found that tweaking the pH level of irrigation water can better serve the trees.
High-density planting, where up to four times the normal number of trees are planted per acre, has enabled growers to get a faster return on their investments, he added.
“The resilience of our industry has shown that we can grow citrus with HLB endemic to the state,” Meadows said.