Citrus greening and hurricanes draining Florida orange population

Reporter: Elizabeth Biro Writer: Paul Dolan
Published: Updated:

Florida prides itself on its juicy oranges, but because of citrus greening and powerful storms, the citrus industry is experiencing its lowest production levels since 1936.

Between the last hurricane season, diseases impacting crops, and increased costs to keep operations productive, growers are feeling beaten down by the stress.

WINK News spoke with Wayne Simmons, the president and owner of Labelle Fruit Company about the issues.

“Farmers as a whole are eternal optimists. But there’s not a lot of optimism left,” said Simmons.

Citrus greening
LaBelle Fruit Company sign. CREDIT: WINK News

Citrus growing and cultivation is what Simmons is particularly passionate about.

“We like to call Florida-Orange-Juice ‘Florida gold,'” said Simmons.

Although, that ‘Florida gold’ hasn’t grown like it used to. A decade ago, during its peak, Simmons’ grove produced 50,000 boxes of oranges a year. This past season that number shrunk down to 4,000 boxes.

Tamiami Citrus had just completed its crop estimate in August.

“We were really comfortable and felt good about the crop we had on the trees at the time. But then Ian hit,” said Ron Mahan, the CFO and vice president of Tamiami Citrus.

Due to Ian, Mahan says their four groves suffered a crop loss totaling $4 or $5 million dollars. The sunshine state as a whole produced just under 16,000,000 boxes of oranges this year.

“Ten years ago, we were producing, we produced 103 million boxes. 20 years ago, we were producing 242 million boxes,” said Mahan.

Asian citrus psyllid. CREDIT: Photograph by Douglas L. Caldwell, University of Florida.

Mahan explained that Hurricane Ian knocked out around half the state’s production, but the major obstacle for growers for the time being is citrus greening. Citrus greening is a bacterial disease brought on by a bug called a psyllid that’s no larger than a grain of rice.

In Florida, every grove has it, and once it’s on the tree, it spreads.

“Neighbor next door, he’s, he’s thrown in the towel,” said Simmons.

Simmons’s neighbor is growing mangos and avocadoes. 20 years ago, Florida, with oranges on its license plate, had 900,000 acres of citrus groves, but in 2023, there are only 400,000 acres.

Nevertheless, Simmons said he’s a little more hard-headed and won’t be throwing in the towel anytime soon.

Sally Scalera is an urban horticulture agent and master gardener coordinator for the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences. She explained citrus greening is caused by a bacterium spread by the Asian citrus psyllid.

citrus greening
Citrus greening impacting oranges. CREDIT: WINK News

“They just fly around and they find citrus trees or citrus-related plants, and then you know, they feed on those,” Scalera said.

The bug feeds on the sap and passes that bacterium into the citrus tree.

One predator helping to control the psyllid population is a special wasp, the Tamarixia radiate.

“It lays an egg on the psyllid and then the egg hatches and eats the psyllid out from the inside. And then it pupates and comes out of the psyllid body as an adult,” explained Scalera.

While the wasps cannot cure greening, they can help lessen the psyllid population and reduce the amount of citrus greening.

Trees with citrus greening produce leaves with a mottled or blotchy appearance.

If you have citrus trees and want some of the wasps offered by the state, you need to apply through the Florida Department of Agriculture.

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