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Monday, October 25, 2010

Orange Growers Fall Victim to Property Bust

An orange infected with yellow dragon disease, left, and a normal-size one, right, in Lake Wales, Fla.

As if the real-estate bust hadn't wreaked enough havoc on Florida, farmers say abandoned lots left behind by would-be developers have become a breeding ground for a plague that is killing thousands of the state's orange trees.

A type of tiny lice known as the Asian citrus psyllid has made its home in the orchards, spreading a disease known as citrus greening, or yellow dragon disease, which causes trees to produce shriveled, bitter oranges before killing them. Since being spotted in 2005, the disease has spread to all parts of the state. And with no known cure, citrus greening is threatening to cripple a $9 billion-a-year industry that supplies 90% of U.S. orange juice.

"It's been one uppercut after another," said Jackie Burns, interim director of the Citrus Research Education Center in Lake Alfred, Fla., which has studied the outbreak. She said she has no doubt that "grove abandonment" has helped spread the disease.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says millions of acres of crops have been devastated by the disease in the southern U.S.

Marty McKenna, a farmer in Polk County in the central part of the state, is battling the disease in many of the 6,000 acres that he owns or manages. He has had to spend thousands of dollars on pesticides, which he said are only partly effective, to prevent the disease. Where he has failed, he has burned hundreds of infected trees and replanted.

Mr. McKenna said he knows who is to blame: absentee landowners that have left the orange groves for dead.

"That's not a good situation for any type of agricultural production, to have a neighbor not properly maintaining his area," Mr. McKenna said. "It's only a matter of time until it's in every grove in the state."

More than 138,000 citrus-growing acres lie abandoned across Florida. The impact has been particularly acute in Polk County, which has the most citrus acreage, at more than 83,000. The county also was a favorite of developers because it is along Interstate 4 between Tampa and Orlando.

Asian citrus psyllid
More than one in 10 acres of orange groves are abandoned in Polk County, according to the USDA. Groves are considered abandoned when they haven't been maintained for two consecutive seasons.

Little data exist on the statewide effects of the citrus disease, in part because growers don't keep close track of the number of trees and acreage affected by specific diseases. But the Florida Department of Citrus predicts that citrus greening will cut Florida orange production by 5% to 6% a year until a cure is found or disease-resistant trees are bred and widely planted, which isn't likely any time soon. That translates into cutting orange production nearly in half over the next decade.

The USDA predicted Florida orange production would total 146 million boxes in the 2010-2011 harvest, a far cry from the 242 million boxes in 2004. Some of that can be attributed to the citrus greening disease.

Prices of frozen concentrated orange juice have jumped 34% in the past year, driven in part by worries about the spreading of citrus greening, as well as damaging winter frosts. Orange juice for November delivery settled on Monday at $1.4925 a pound on the Intercontinental Exchange. Retail prices have shot up as well, to a national average of $5.51 a gallon of orange juice from $4.50 five years ago, according to Nielsen Co.

The first symptoms of infected trees are blotchy spots on leaves and poor flowering. They then produce fruit that is small and bitter. Eventually, the trees die. The only way to contain the disease is to burn the infected trees and the surrounding area. The lice, which are no bigger than the head of a pin, carry the disease for life.

"Those who came in buying good, quality citrus groves have quit caretaking them to the point where they're not salvageable," said Richard Dempsey, the president of the Lakeland Association of Realtors.

Many developers have little farming knowledge and no means of maintaining the agricultural land they bought, Mr. Dempsey said. Their goal is typically to hold onto the land until the market comes back, so they can be the first to build.

Keeping the land also gives many absent owners the advantage of generous tax breaks intended for farmers. Land labeled for citrus use is assessed at about $2,200 an acre, compared with up to $20,000 or $30,000 an acre without that classification, said Marsha Faux, Polk County's property appraiser.

The Florida Department of Agriculture's Division of Plant Industry is mapping the state's citrus groves to try to weed out developers taking a tax break for abandoned orchards.

But the process is slow, and the agency has no authority to force owners to care for groves, said Mark Fagan, director of public information. The department notifies local tax appraisers when it finds evidence of abandonment, but can't do much more, Mr. Fagan said.

And just boosting tax revenue won't stop the spread of citrus greening, which continues to eat into production and, as a result, grower's profits.

Disease isn't new to Florida's citrus industry. It still is dealing with outbreaks of canker, a bacterial disease detected 15 years ago that cuts trees' fruit production. In 2004, citrus canker infected millions of trees after a string of hurricanes sprinkled it throughout the state. Greening could cause even more damage, said Bob Norberg, an economist and deputy executive director at the Florida Department of Citrus.

The USDA has tried to confine greening to Florida, quarantining infected trees, banning the transport of live citrus plants across the state border and inspecting citrus fruit before it is shipped out of state. It even has a campaign—Save Our Citrus—designed to prevent the spread of the disease. And, the USDA is working with various agencies to find a cure, according to Greg Rosenthal, spokesman for the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

But the disease has already been detected in Louisiana, Georgia and South Carolina.

Louisiana so far has only had a few cases in backyard trees, said Alan Vaughn, a county agent for the Louisiana State University Agricultural Center. Even though most of the surrounding region is under quarantine, it is hard to stop people from bringing fruit and trees across the border, he said. Most people just don't know that it is illegal and it is hard to prevent individuals bringing single trees or leaves across the border, he said.

"We do have the insect and we're forever watching it," Mr. Vaughn said. "Our plan is to remove as many insects as possible, but you can only do so much."

For now, Mr. McKenna spends most of his days spraying trees with pesticides meant to ward off lice. It is a routine he estimates costs an extra $600 an acre or more a year. "It's absolutely the No. 1 threat, mainly because of the unknown. We don't know the end of this greening story," Mr. McKenna said. "We're trying to figure out how to hang on until there's a scientific breakthrough."

posted by CASFS 2006 @ 10:43 PM


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