Florida’s famed Citrus in fight for survival

Hilario Barajas lifts crates of navel oranges onto a flatbed truck at an orange grove in Umatilla. Mainly because of disease, Florida’s orange production is projected to decline this year.

The emblem of Florida agriculture continues a fight for its survival.

Florida’s citrus industry, led by orange-growing, withstood punishing freezes, hurricanes and pests.

Yet, a disease caused by a barely visible insect, first confirmed 15 years ago in Florida, has caused a decade and a half of industrywide struggles.

The vast majority of all oranges grown in the U.S. comes from Florida. In the 2019-20 season, the state’s growers produced 67.6 million of the nation’s more than 119 million boxes of oranges.

“California and Texas are Florida’s only main competitors in orange-growing,” said Kris Sutton, an Umatilla citrus grower who grows oranges for Florida’s Natural orange juice. “In other states, (oranges) won’t survive because of the cold.”

But managing the citrus greening disease is a puzzle that growers and scientists are still working to solve.

August will mark 15 years since citrus greening, a deadly and incurable bacterial infection affecting citrus trees and their fruits, was confirmed in Florida. Since its discovery in Homestead and Florida City, the disease has spread to every county in Florida and infected about 80% of the state’s citrus groves, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Lake and Marion counties had their first confirmed cases of citrus greening in 2007. Sumter County, which has a presence of citrus trees in residential landscapes but no commercial orange growers, had its first confirmed case in 2008.

Fifteen years ago, orange production came just below 150 million boxes of fruit, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. This season, the harvest is less than half of that — about 69.6 million boxes.

The tri-county area hasn’t been immune to the challenges.

During the 2008-09 season, Lake County citrus growers produced 4.7 million boxes of oranges, grapefruits, tangerines and tangelos, and Marion County growers produced 381,000 boxes, including 326,000 boxes of oranges, according to USDA data. Ten years later, in the 2018-19 season, production fell to 974,000 boxes in Lake and 113,000 boxes in Marion, with oranges accounting for 827,000 and 96,000 boxes, in Lake and Marion, respectively.

The 2019-20 production season finished as the sixth consecutive year when orange production fell below 100 million boxes.

And growers blame it on citrus greening.

“We’re doing everything we can to fight greening, but it’s overtaking our groves,” said Huey Reed, owner of Reed’s Groves in Weirsdale. “It’s gotten progressively worse over the last few years.”

An Icon Under Siege

Florida may be nicknamed the Sunshine State, but another round, brightly colored object defines the state and its culture as much as — if not more than — the sun.

The orange is the state fruit, orange juice is the state beverage and the orange blossom is the state flower.

Oranges are printed on Florida’s license plate. The state’s orange growers inspired the Disney character Orange Bird and Marvel character Captain Citrus.

Florida’s welcome centers served free orange juice to tourists for years. The practice came to a brief end in 2019, resuming this month thanks to an increase in the Florida Citrus Commission’s promotional budget.

All that makes imagining Florida without oranges unfathomable.

But Mother Nature and disease-spreading insects tested growers’ limits over the years.

A series of destructive freezes in the 1980s wiped out most of the citrus in south Lake County, where orange groves were once plentiful and made the region’s air smell like perfume.

The grove losses took away the draw of the local landmark, the 226-foot-tall Florida Citrus Tower, built in 1956 in Clermont. In its heyday, people could view bountiful orange trees from the panoramic observation deck at the top of the orange-striped white tower.

Now, it offers a view of Central Florida’s suburban neighborhoods — sort of like a view from the Empire State Building in New York City, but without the skyscrapers — on land where groves once stood.

Hurricane Irma in 2017 also decimated citrus crops, uprooting orange trees and flooding groves.

But no threat to citrus has defined the industry like the bacterial disease caused by a bug less than a quarter inch long.

A brown mottled insect called the Asian citrus psyllid is the carrier that spreads citrus greening, an incurable bacterial infection also known as huanglongbing, or HLB, according to the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS).

The psyllid was first discovered along Florida’s east coast from Broward to St. Lucie counties in 1998, seven years before citrus greening was first confirmed. At the time, UF/IFAS scientists believed the psyllid’s distribution was limited to dooryard host plantings.

Today, its population is as widespread as alligators. Psyllids have been confirmed in all 67 Florida counties.

After psyllids transmit citrus greening, the leaves of an orange tree may appear to turn yellow and give a pattern that doesn’t look the same on the right and left side of the leaves. This condition, known as blotchy mottle, is a major symptom of citrus greening, according to UF/IFAS.

Fruit from an infected tree will appear green, lopsided and misshapen on the outside, according to UF/IFAS. The insides show aborted seeds, a yellow stain and a curved central core. The taste is described as salty and bitter.

In short, it’s the type of fruit no orange-loving consumer would want.

Distressed growers had to make difficult choices that ranged from pulling out their orange trees and planting something else, to abandoning their groves entirely.

“The trees are looking pretty bad,” Reed said. “It’s not going to produce as much fruit, and we’ve lost fruit we couldn’t pick because it dropped off before it got ripe enough to pick.”

When Florida orange production reached a peak of more than 244 million boxes during the 1997-98 growing season, it marked a slow and steady recovery from the 1980s freezes that brought production below a similar high mark, USDA data showed.

In the 15 growing seasons since citrus greening was discovered, production increased only four times.

That included the 2018-19 season, a recovery after the previous season was the worst for citrus growers since World War II. Continued losses from greening coupled with damages from Hurricane Irma brought the harvest down to 45 million boxes.

The 2014-15 season was the first time in 48 years in which the harvest fell below 100 million boxes. Growers haven’t returned to that mark since.

One season later, Polk County’s 21-year streak as the state’s No. 1 citrus growing county came to an end, when its production fell behind the southwest Florida counties of Hendry and DeSoto. The latter county produced more citrus than Polk in the 2016-17 and 2018-19 seasons.

Polk, one of Florida’s top citrus growing counties over the last seven decades, produced 12.1 million boxes in 2018-19. It paled in comparison to the 34.6 million boxes grown there during the statewide growing peak of 1997-98.

Processors face pressure

With less fruit coming from the state’s citrus groves, fewer processing plants are needed to squeeze the fruit into orange juice and other byproducts like cattle feed and essential oils.

“There’s a lot less of us now,” said Kristen Carlson, executive director of the Florida Citrus Processors Association, an industry trade group. “The processing sector had a lot more players, and since there’s not enough fruit to process, there’s been a contraction in the processing industry.”

Florida’s citrus processing industry began in the 1910s, when a man named Claude Everett Street came to Florida after declining the nomination for governor of Colorado. Upon surveying Florida’s citrus groves, Street noticed that oranges and grapefruits were going to waste because they were only sold and shipped fresh.

In 1914, working in a laboratory in Avon Park, Street discovered that oranges and grapefruits could be mass-processed into juice, according to the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame. The process involved squeezing juice out of the fruit by hand, then using a laundry dryer to remove heavy pulp and seeds by centrifugal force.

A year after his discovery, he opened Florida’s first citrus processing facility in Haines City.

As the citrus industry grew in the following decades, so did the number of juice processors. As many as 56 processors existed in the 1980s, Carlson said.

But as citrus groves shut down due to citrus greening, so did processing plants.

Today, only seven major processing plants — collectively operated by four companies — remain in Florida, according to Florida Citrus Mutual:

Two are operated by the Brazilian company Cutrale, the largest orange juice processor in the U.S. Cutrale produces Minute Maid and Simply Orange orange juice for the Coca-Cola Co., a partnership that began in 1996 when Cutrale purchased Coca-Cola’s citrus processing operations. Cutrale has plants in Auburndale, where its headquarters are located, and Leesburg, the tri-county area’s only citrus processor.

Two are operated by Peace River Citrus Products, a DeSoto County plant in Arcadia and a Polk County plant in Bartow. Juice made at Peace River is made for major brands like Coca-Cola, as well as the company’s own private label.

Tropicana, the orange juice company owned by beverage giant PepsiCo, has its main processing plant at its headquarters in Bradenton and a smaller plant in Fort Pierce.

Citrus World Inc., the parent company of the Florida’s Natural Growers cooperative, operates a plant in Lake Wales, where Florida’s Natural juice products are made.

When asked how citrus processors are adapting to the current industry climate, Carlson offered a brutally honest assessment.

“Some of them have adapted by closing and going away,” she said.

But not all the news surrounding citrus processing has been pessimistic.

On Jan. 23, Peace River announced a $98 million expansion of its Bartow plant and a 10-year partnership with Coca-Cola North America to make juice beverages for Minute Maid.

The new 320,000-square-foot facility was projected to create more than 175 jobs by early 2022.

In a news release at the time, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried called the expansion “a truly significant investment, which provides great hope for the future of Florida citrus,” and said it reflects the “quality and capacity of Florida’s resurgent citrus industry.”

None of the major citrus processors offered the Daily Sun access to their facilities because of the risks of COVID-19.

But Christopher Groom, chief operating officer of Florida’s Natural, spoke about why its operations have succeeded where other plants failed.

He thinks its nature as a grower-friendly operation, efficient processing operations, diverse and innovative products and its positive work culture may explain the resiliency of Florida’s Natural.

It hasn’t come easy.

“Citrus greening and a decrease in orange juice consumption in the U.S. creates any number of challenges,” Groom said. “We’re in every grocery store, however we compete with two very well-funded and well-run companies in Pepsi (with Tropicana) and Coca-Cola (with Simply Orange and Minute Maid). If you’re a brand with less resources, it presents challenges as well.”

But Florida’s Natural also is in a unique situation as a grower-owned cooperative.

“We’re vertically integrated — we own the land, the trees, the company,” Groom said. “And the brand gets all of its fruit, whether orange or grapefruit, from Florida. Our competition gets theirs from overseas.”

Processors are so lucrative to the citrus industry because more than 90% of oranges grown each year are squeezed into juice, said Shelley Rossetter, spokeswoman with the Florida Department of Citrus. About 80% of Florida orange juice is considered “single-strength,” or juice that’s not from concentrate.

“Florida juice processors provide more than $4.7 billion of the economic contributions of the Florida citrus industry to the state of Florida each season,” she said.

But not all of the state’s licensed citrus processors make orange juice.

CitraPac, a Sebring-based company, processes the insides of oranges into purees, the skins into a ground-up peel for pharmacies to use in medications and bakeries to use in cakes and pastries, and uses caviar-sized drops of frozen orange juice in a snack called FruitPearls, available in flavors that include lemon, strawberry banana and strawberry.

Stock images of FruitPearls show the pearls of frozen juice mixed in a bowl with pureed fruit.

Plant City-based Marjon Specialty Foods manufactures ready-made packages of sliced oranges, orange sections and whole orange peels, which are sold to wholesale food service customers such as restaurants and schools.

Whether they make juice, essential oils or other products from Florida oranges, it will take new tree plantings, better fruit yields and at least modest market growth each year for processors to achieve sustainability, relevance and impact in the long run, said Dr. Marisa Zansler, director of Economic and Market Research with the Florida Department of Citrus.

“The Florida citrus industry is resilient and capable of withstanding many challenges,” she said. “The industry continues to work together to ensure consumers can enjoy safe, quality, delicious and nutritious Florida orange juice and citrus for years to come.”

Leaving Oranges

While the industry as a whole may be resilient, citrus greening proved so overwhelming for some growers, they saw no choice besides leaving it.

Citrus greening was a sudden and devastating blow to the groves on Michael and Mary Graham’s 100-year-old family farm in Umatilla.

In the time greening first emerged as a serious threat to Lake County’s citrus, the Grahams’ 60 acres of citrus were unaffected.

Within a few years, the disease choked the life out of the groves.

“We didn’t think we’d have the problems everyone else had,” Mary said. “Then all of a sudden, the trees started collapsing.”

The Grahams didn’t want to sell the land to developers — they wanted to maintain the farming family’s legacy that dates back to the farm’s 1918 opening. But the bills and the mortgage still had to be paid, greening or no greening.

So they took out almost all of the groves and planted peach trees where they once stood. Later, they’d add sunflowers and watermelons.

They’re among a number of growers statewide who chose to abandon citrus growing to pursue alternative crops.

It’s a list that continues to grow.

Former Clermont citrus grower Rex Clonts sold his groves for development and relocated to Oviedo to start an organic vegetable farm, BigDaddy’s Farm.

The Florida Olive Council, University of Florida researchers and several Florida olive farms are researching whether olives can be a sustainable crop for former citrus growers looking for alternative crops. One farmer, Richard Williams of DeLeon Springs, received financial support for his olive farm from his citrus growing in-laws.

Like the Grahams, Dustin Lowe — whose family also grew citrus for nearly a century — took out the citrus and planted other crops. His farm, Lake Catherine Blueberries, specializes in seasonal pick-your-own crops like blueberries and blackberries. It’s also the site of agritourism events like fall festivals, concert series and even Groveland’s annual Fourth of July celebration.

Longtime Apopka orange grower Peter McClure, credited by the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame for studying citrus greening around the time of its discovery in Florida, also has researched and promoted alternative crops for former citrus growers. He’s currently chief agriculture officer for the agritech startup TerViva, which is working with growers to plant the pongamia tree as a citrus alternative. Pongamia trees produce a nut-like legume that can be processed into oil and protein.

Hops, used to flavor beer, also captured interest from former citrus growers.

Dade City farmer Leonard Gude, whose family is synonymous with the city’s celebrated kumquat crop, planted a 10-acre hop yard on land that had been vacant since freezes in the 1980s killed the citrus trees that formerly stood there.

He and his brother considered planting more citrus. But they had second thoughts because of citrus greening.

“He wasn’t sure what to do with it,” Gude said. “So we decided to give a shot at growing hops on it.”

The family continues growing kumquats in a city best known for its harvest of the olive-sized citrus fruits that look like baby oranges. Dade City attracts thousands of visitors every January when it holds its Annual Kumquat Festival.

But the industry challenges haven’t made it easy. About three years ago, Gude and his family had to replace their kumquat trees when almost all of them succumbed to greening.

“When you have an area knocked down by the disease and there’s a bleak future because of the disease, it affects the grower’s decision,” said Carlson, of the Florida Citrus Processors Association.

Those decisions often hinge on a grower’s ability to pay the bills, which explains why many opted to shift to alternative crops.

It wasn’t easy for the Grahams to leave citrus behind because of oranges’ importance to Florida’s agriculture.

Yet, it made sense to them from an economic and biological standpoint.

They’re making more money from peaches, and the trees grow and mature faster than orange trees.

Only five acres of oranges remain today — for now.

Michael Graham plans to pull out more orange trees to plant more peach trees.

Cautious Optimism

The reality of how citrus greening affected growers makes survival a challenge.

Even those who are persevering had to scale back their business.

Ridge Island Groves, a 28-year-old orange grove in Haines City, closed a store it operated in the southern end of Clermont. The giant orange on top of the building that read “Squeezed” in all caps was taken down upon its closing.

The Orange Barn in Lady Lake, a store owned by G&S Fruit Packers owner Pete Spyke, closed permanently at the end of the 2018-19 citrus season.

Sutton, the Florida’s Natural grower, and his partners closed their Umatilla packing house Sunsational Citrus when the orange harvest was too small to justify operating it.

They converted the former packing house into an agritourism operation that includes a food truck where Sutton cooks comfort foods such as hamburgers and pulled-pork sandwiches, a farm store where guests can try fresh-squeezed orange juice and sweet treats like milkshakes and snow cones, and rides along a “bee train.” The giant orange facing the roadside is still there.

But researchers are betting they can find a solution to reverse the trends of production downturns and closing facilities.

One that’s showing signs of promise involves ongoing genetic research, which involves developing new varieties of citrus that are more tolerant of the disease.

This research spawned Sugar Belles, a hybrid of the Clementine mandarin and Minneola tangelo. UF researchers think it’s the most greening-tolerant variety of citrus that they know of.

Fred Gmitter, a citrus geneticist at UF credited with developing the Sugar Belle, said researchers develop thousands of hybrids every year but only some are more tolerant of greening than standard citrus.

What tolerance from greening means to him is when the citrus thrives not only biologically, but also economically.

“If citrus growers are bringing in more money than they’re investing, that’s tolerant,” Gmitter said.

Today, researchers are experimenting with whether Sugar Belles can be used for orange juice.

An early study involving a juice blend that utilized 90% traditional juice oranges like Valencias and Hamlins and 10% of Sugar Belles yielded positive outcomes, Gmitter said. According to the Florida Citrus Commission, 10% is the highest percentage of anything other than oranges that can go into a product marketed as orange juice.

“In consumer studies, they preferred the blends,” he said.

But there’s still more that needs to be done for juice from Sugar Belles to be a realistic, long-term solution for growers who depend on juice oranges to survive.

For example, it’s not yet known how well they will hold up in transit to a processing plant versus Valencia and Hamlin oranges, Gmitter said.

And it would take action from the Florida Citrus Commission that would redefine how products are marketed as orange juice to sell juice that comes predominantly or entirely from Sugar Belles as orange juice, he added.

Despite those challenges, Gmitter believes the way forward involves a solution rooted in genetic research, like the work being done with Sugar Belles.

“Many people have tried different ways to beat this disease,” he said. “They’ve tried to spray their way out of it. Obviously that didn’t work. We’re still in bad shape. Over time, the growers in our industry have come to realize the solution to (citrus greening) is going to be a genetic solution, whether they’re tolerant or resistant to this disease.”

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