The Sour State of Florida Citrus

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J. Pat Carter / AP

Low hanging oranges cling to trees barely out of the flood waters left behind by Tropical Storm Fay.

For nine days, Tropical Storm Fay drenched nine states, entering and exiting Florida four times alone while dousing portions of it with more than two feet of rain. And while the Sunshine State dealt with the havoc caused by the steady, heavy rains that almost certainly touched each of its 67 counties, the bad weather increased the woes of Florida's precarious and crucial $9 billion citrus industry.

Fay is the most significant and widespread inundation of Florida since five hurricanes smacked the state in 2004-05. Aside from knocking fruits off trees, the combination of wind and rain exacerbated citrus canker, a disease that infects leaves and causes fruit to drop prematurely. Fay is likely to have increased the spread of the disease. Canker has destroyed more than 16 million trees in Florida. Despite $600 million in federal and state money spent to eradicate it from 1996-2006, the United States Department of Agriculture deemed eradication impossible after Hurricane Wilma blew through in October 2005.

As a result of storms and canker, orange production declined nearly in half from 242 million 90-lb boxes in 2003 to 129 million boxes by 2006-07. The price for a gallon of not-from-concentrate orange juice has increased by more than $1.50, to $5.90 last month. Several growers have since sold their groves to developers. The number of commercial groves in Florida dropped from about 857,000 acres in 1996 to 621,000 acres in 2006.

A week after Fay hit Florida, thousands of acres of citrus groves, particularly in the grapefruit belt on the east-central coast, remain under water. Orange groves in South Florida also endured flooding, though to a lesser extent. Damaged, soggy roots increase the potential for premature fruit drops. But the extent of the harm caused by the rains has yet to be fully assessed; damp conditions have limited surveys of the damage. But Florida's grapefruit season is barely a month away and there is fear that there will not be enough ripe fruit to reach the market. Early guesstimates provided by growers to the industry group Florida Citrus Mutual indicate a 5% fruit drop among affected groves, with that number likely to increase if there's long term root damage. The area produces about three-quarters of the grapefruit in Florida, which is by far the largest grapefruit- and orange-producing state in the country.

In more than three decades in the citrus business, Doug Bournique has never seen such a downpour over Florida's Treasure Coast and Space Coast regions. It's been impossible to pump the stormwater out quickly because adjacent bodies of water are also above normal level. "We're in unchartered territory. I've never seen it this wet," says Bournique, executive director of the Indian River Citrus League, which includes 900 grower-members from Palm Beach County north to the Daytona Beach area. "It really was a one-in-100-year rainfall event for this region."

Beyond the sogginess and damp, however, is a more dangerous threat: greening, a condition caused by the Asian Citrus psyllid, a sap-sucking insect invader from overseas whose depredations began three years ago. Unlike canker, greening spreads from tree to tree without the aid of heavy winds or rain. Greening, also called huanglongbing or yellow dragon disease, creates misshapen and bitter fruit and eventually renders the infected trees useless for commercial cultivation. As soon as the insects appeared, greening was detected in all 32 citrus-producing counties in Florida, as well as in Louisiana and Texas.

"Before this storm," said Michael Sparks, executive vice president and CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual, "there was no doubt that greening was this industry's highest priority and greatest concern." So much so that of the Florida Department of Citrus' $60 million budget — collected from growers as a small percentage of each box of fruit produced — more than $20 million has been set aside for disease research, most of which is focused on greening.

The research keeps citrus folks optimistic. But as they know, the weather can't be underestimated. As Fay faded, Tropical Storm Gustav is churning in the waters. And even if it doesn't hit Florida, other storms are certain to wash through the state. "We're just trying our hardest to dry out to deal with whatever Mother Nature deals us next," says Bournique. "We just need a break."