Florida citrus farmers see reason for optimism

Frank Stivender, whose family has grown citrus on his Leesburg grove for nearly a century, thinks that 2022 may be a better growing season. “The trees are looking better each year,” Stivender said.

Near citrus harvest time, the sound of fruit prematurely dropping from trees in the morning is a rude awakening for Frank Stivender.

But the coming season is holding some promise as he waits patiently for his Hamlin juice oranges to mature for picking. He is resting easier, knowing fewer fruits have dropped from his trees before harvest time.

"I believe the tree now, as it's fighting greening, wants to keep the oranges," said Stivender, whose family has grown citrus on his Leesburg grove for nearly a century. "It's not having the drop we had in previous seasons."

In the weeks to come, Florida's orange growers will get ready to harvest the first fruits of the season. Later this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will issue its first outlook for the 2021-22 season.

The 2020-21 orange harvest topped out at 52.8 million boxes, down from 67.4 million boxes in 2019-20. The USDA measures citrus production in boxes, with one box equal to 90 pounds of fruit.

Even as the federal outlooks seem to dim by the year, growers on the ground continue to approach their legacy in citrus growing with cautious optimism.

And Stivender isn't alone in his thinking that 2022 may be a better season.

Although 2020-21 marked one of the lowest harvests in recent memory, Florida Citrus Commission Chairman Steve Johnson said grove conditions are "encouraging" for the upcoming season.

More Resilient Fruit

Growers think their crop this year is more resilient against the diseases that have caused recent production declines.

"The trees are looking better each year," Stivender said.

Kris Sutton, of Faryna Grove Care and Harvesting in Umatilla, hasn't yet tested his fruit for quality, but the quantity appears to be "on par with, if not better than, last year."

Right now he is maintaining the groves and planning his last application of fertilizer for the year. Fertilizing provides nutrients to citrus trees, which keeps them healthy and plays a role in how well the crop comes in.

Local growers' persistence in growing oranges, the signature crop of Florida's agriculture industry and one of the icons that defines the state, is a testament to the resilience of Florida citrus amid threats from pests, diseases and extreme weather.

A turnaround would be welcomed following years of production declines because of citrus greening, an incurable bacterial infection spread by an insect called the Asian citrus psyllid.

The disease infects citrus trees and causes the fruit to appear green, lopsided and misshapen on the outside with aborted seeds on the inside and a salty, bitter taste, according to UF/IFAS.

Year-over-year orange production in Florida has increased only four times in the 16 years since citrus greening was discovered in the state, according to the USDA.

Research Showing Promise

While local growers await their harvests, citrus researchers remain committed to the long-term survival of Florida citrus.

Scientists have spent years researching citrus industry innovations, including possible treatments and cures for citrus greening and breeding new varieties of citrus that may better tolerate pests and diseases.

The University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is one of the institutions leading the charge in citrus research. Scientists cited these developments among their recent findings:

- Researchers are testing out new methods using artificial intelligence to predict crop yields on citrus groves. A preliminary study found one of these methods, combining data from drones with manually gathered ground-based data, predicted how much fruit would grow in a grove during the 2019-20 season with 98% accuracy, much higher than a manual count by itself, according to UF/IFAS associate professor Yiannis Ampatzidis.

- A four-year study will assess how microbes that live inside citrus trees may impact citrus diseases. The study, supported by a $750,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, may lead scientists to find how citrus microbiomes may successfully control diseases, said Nian Wang, professor of microbiology and cell science at UF/IFAS.

- Plant breeders at UF/IFAS continue research on new greening-tolerant varieties of citrus they developed. Fred Gmitter, who developed the Sugar Belle mandarins, said he thinks solutions rooted in plant genetics are key to fighting back against citrus greening. Growers will have a chance to view greening-tolerant varieties of citrus, including some bred by Gmitter, at a drive-through field day Oct. 14 at the UF/IFAS Indian River Research and Education Center in Fort Pierce.

"When you look at everything humanity has grown over the past several thousands of years, there is no sustainable chemical solution," Gmitter said. "Our problems have been solved by genetic breeding. It's a long, slow road, but it's a steady road and we have a record of success."

What the Season Holds

What success will look like for citrus growers this season remains to be seen.

The first clues to what the harvest may look like are expected next week. The USDA will issue its first outlook of the 2021-22 season on Oct. 12. These outlooks, which track production of oranges grown for fresh fruit, Valencia oranges grown for juice, grapefruits, lemons and tangerines, are updated once every month until July.

No matter what the outcome of the season is, Stivender plans to continue carrying on his family's citrus growing legacy at his Leesburg groves. His brother also has built upon that legacy at a 20-acre grove in Weirsdale.

Both Stivender and Sutton gave the same answer when asked why they continue to grow oranges despite the industry-wide challenges: It's in their blood.

"You just can't walk away from it," Stivender said. "I'm 64 years old, and I've been growing citrus my whole life. It's the best thing I can grow."

Senior writer Michael Salerno can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or michael.salerno@thevillagesmedia.com.