As federal war on citrus greening heats up, growers see some signs of hope

Healthy orange fruit, left, pictured next to fruit damaged by “greening.” (Tom Benitez/Orlando Sentinel/MCT)
Healthy orange fruit, left, pictured next to fruit damaged by “greening.” (Tom Benitez/Orlando Sentinel/MCT) MCT

The federal government is ramping up its spending to combat citrus greening, a growing scourge in farm regions in Florida and elsewhere, even as growers see some signs for optimism.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced an expanded program for citrus growers in Florida, one that provides government payments to help remove and replace dying trees. Federal officials think it could help up to 5,000 growers in Florida.

While other at-risk states such as Texas and California weren’t included, they eventually might be.

“I think this will make the Florida citrus growers very happy,” said Mary Palm, a USDA official who leads a multiagency group designed to combat the disease.

Florida growers, in fact, were happy with the announcement, with a top official calling it “really good news” that should help growers replant their damaged citrus. It also comes during a year in which the federal government has committed substantial resources to combating the disease, and growers are beginning to see some early signs it might be possible to slow the disease’s rapid progression.

“There are new plantings and replantings out there,” said Andrew Meadows, a spokesman for Florida Citrus Mutual, an industry association based in Lakeland, Fla. “There is some optimism. There’s been a lot of doom and gloom, and this is the biggest obstacle our industry faces. But there are growers who are bullish on the industry and are replanting.”

Citrus greening is also known as Huanglongbing. It first appeared in Asia during the late 1800s. It has decimated citrus crops in Asia, Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and Brazil.

The insect that spreads the disease – the pinhead-sized Asian citrus psyllid – was first seen in Florida in 1998. The disease itself appeared in Florida in 2005 and rapidly spread to all 32 citrus-growing counties.

The disease migrates when infected plants are moved and come into contact with the carrier insect, which can transmit it to other trees. It’s not a threat to humans or animals. But when it takes hold in a tree it eventually causes it to produce green, bitter-tasting fruit, thus ruining crops meant for sale to consumers or juice makers.

The disease has been on the march. In California – another huge producer of citrus crops – growers are on edge, as the insect and the disease have appeared in the state but not yet caused widespread problems. In Texas just this week, state agriculture officials added two Houston-area counties to the state’s citrus greening quarantine map, which also includes counties in the state’s southernmost tip. The state said the quarantine is designed to restrict the movement of potentially infected plant material and slow the spread of the disease.

Florida remains ground zero in the fight. The citrus industry there contributes $9 billion a year to the economy and supports about 76,000 jobs, the U.S. Agriculture Department said.

After first appearing, the disease took several years to really take hold in the state. Now, though, the damage – reduced yields, lower-quality fruit – is apparent.

For the growers, the recent federal infusion of funds includes short-term assistance for damaged trees and long-term backing for the research that might ultimately help eliminate the disease.

The program announced this week will help growers remove trees hurt by the greening disease and replant groves. The so-called “Tree Assistance Program” was already on the books, but it has been expanded; before, to receive assistance, all tree deaths had to occur in one year, whereas now farmers can receive support as trees decline or die over a period of up to six years.

Growers will be eligible for up to 50 percent of the cost of removing diseased trees, 65 percent of the cost of replanting and labor and 65 percent of the cost of seedlings. There are limits of $125,000 in assistance for any one person or legal entity.

The long-term funding may take years to bear fruit, but it will be substantial. First announced earlier this year when Congress passed the farm bill, the research funds are set to begin going out the door.

The grants will be used to research the disease and help growers cope with it. According to the USDA, $25 million in mandatory funds will be available in each of the next five fiscal years.

The first awards are expected to go out in November.

A separate pot of money, with $6.5 million, is funding projects that can, among other things, “more quickly provide practical tools for citrus growers to use,” the USDA said.

All told, the types of projects the USDA is funding range from field testing antimicrobials to developing demonstration groves to training dogs to detect the disease. Additional projects will be announced this fall.

Meadows, the Florida citrus official, said the disease is endemic in his state and has caused damage in all 32 citrus-growing counties. There are scores of projects already in the works worldwide to combat it, and the industry is attacking the issue “from every angle we possibly can,” he said.

Among the promising possibilities is heat treatment, in which trees are tented and then heat or steam is applied to help control the disease. While not a new method, there are new ways in which it is being applied to treat citrus greening. Those methods, Meadows said, have shown some promise.