Devastation to the Citrus Industry: A Grower’s Perspective
Jim Snively, the Vice President of Citrus Grove Operations for Southern Gardens Citrus in Clewiston, FL., which has been directly impacted by the detection and spread of the HLB greening disease in Florida. Today, in this interview, he provides his personal experience with this disease.
What was your first experience with citrus greening?
In October of 2005, our company received information that the bacterial disease known as HLB, Huanglongbing or Greening, was found in one of our groves. This news came right when we were destroying thousands of acres of citrus trees due to the mandatory eradication program for Citrus Canker, another bacterial disease. We were now diagnosed with HLB, a disease that has totally eliminated citrus from other regions of the world.
What has been the impact of citrus greening on your operation?
The Southern Gardens crop has declined by 56% and the cost to grow oranges has doubled. This is the same experience that is being realized by the majority of the Florida Citrus Growers, and in some cases, it has taken them out of business. HLB is the worst situation that this industry has ever faced and may even be considered the worst epidemic ever experienced in any agricultural crop.
What steps have you taken to manage and/or eliminate the disease?
In 2005, our team immediately went into action to determine what steps to take to be able to endure this disease based on the experience of other citrus growing regions in the world. We learned that success in dealing with this condition consisted of finding infected trees, removing them quickly, controlling the insect vector that spreads the disease, and replanting with disease free trees; a process implemented immediately.
Initially, trees that were destroyed were very minimal, vector populations were very low, and it seemed as though the Florida Citrus Industry could beat this disease. This experience was short lived and by 2009, growers discontinued this program and turned to unproven alternative methods. Focus was on reducing tree stress with nutrition and good pest management to allow the trees to have the strength to fight the disease with its own defense mechanism; to date, unsuccessful.
Southern Gardens continued the “Seek and Destroy” process from 2005 until 2015. After removing almost 50% of our producing trees we realized we could not sustain our business if we continued this process. Today we are living with HLB, much like others within the Florida Citrus Industry.
What does the future hold to ensure citrus products are available in grocery stores?
We remain optimistic about the future of Florida Citrus. We have survived as an industry for over 100 years due to our research efforts and perseverance. We have survived annihilating freezes in the 20th century, debilitating viral diseases, and Citrus Canker. Experience with many of these issues continue today but are dealt with through improved genetics from breeding practices tolerant to viruses and colder temperatures and better fruit quality. Most of our epidemics have been overcome in this way but; this process in citrus takes decades, not years.
The ultimate solution for HLB will come through resistant or tolerant varieties. The biggest dilemma with creating these varieties is time. We may not have time to wait on these trees through the conventional breeding process. Once we have the resistant varieties developed and approved from a regulatory perspective, we must also then work to educate the consumer on the safety and acceptability of biotechnology. Otherwise, we could be in a position that citrus as we know it today in the United States, could be significantly reduced or in a worst case, eliminated.