Central Florida citrus growers find creative ways to survive despite deadly greening disease

Central Florida citrus growers find creative ways to survive despite deadly greening disease

by DeVore Design, January 28, 2017

Brothers Ted and Ed White grew up picking citrus in their dad’s groves five decades ago, when oranges were king in Central Florida and the future of the industry shined with seemingly limitless potential.

That was before the freezes of the 1980s, the land-development boom of the 1990s, the hurricanes of the 2000s and the latest and deadliest scourge: citrus-greening disease.

But like other growers who are sticking with Florida’s state fruit, Ted, 58, and Ed, 57, are finding ways to adapt and survive.

In November, they closed the packinghouse that operated in the Conway neighborhood of Orlando for nearly 55 years — 34 with the Whites as owners — and moved their business to seven acres at their parents’ homestead in Sanford, slashing commuting and labor costs. They pared their budget further by switching from a landline telephone to cellphones.

The brothers converted a barn into a farm store and began selling vegetables and pick-your-own herbs and strawberries along with old-Florida standards such as fruit, juice, honey, orange ice cream and boiled peanuts. For 50 cents, kids can feed a flock of chickens.

It’s free to watch oranges skitter up a conveyer belt into a machine that washes and waxes them — a smaller version of the one used in the old packinghouse.

“Citrus greening is a huge challenge,” said Ted White, the company president. “We felt like it would be better for us to downsize.”

The latest U.S. Department of Agriculture production estimate for the 2016-17 Florida orange season is more bad news for the battered industry: 71 million boxes, each containing 90 pounds of fruit. That’s down from the 242 million boxes produced in the 2003 to 2004 season, shortly before several hurricanes devastated Florida, and nearly one-third less than in 2013-2014.

The record is 244 million boxes in 1997-1998.

In Central Florida, Lake County was the second-highest producer in the state until the freezes of the 1980s, said Candice Erick, who helps forecast Florida’s citrus crop for the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

In 1980, Lake had 122,777 acres of groves, she said. By 1986, it had 13,523 acres. In 2016, only 8,766 acres remained. Last season, Lake produced 1.6 million boxes of citrus, barely edging out minor player Osceola’s 1.5 million.

Uncle Matt’s Organic is one Lake company that’s found a niche in natural. Based in Clermont, Uncle Matt’s touts its products as free of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, and synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.

The family business was launched in 1999 and now markets to Publix and Whole Foods, among other retailers.

“We’re very fortunate,” said Benny McLean, 74, who has been in the citrus business for more than 50 years and is production manager and father of founder and chief executive Matt McLean. “We got in at the right time.”

The family also operates three pick-your-own organic peach orchards in Clermont and is branching out to organic vegetables. But citrus is its lifeblood, and the McLeans are among the growers contributing to research on how to control greening, which first appeared in Florida in 2005 in Miami-Dade County.

About $250 million has been invested in citrus-greening research over the past decade, according to the trade group Florida Citrus Mutual.

The state’s $10.8 billion citrus industry is at stake. Florida produces most of the juice oranges in the country, and the fruit is so identified with the state that its image appears on license plates.

“Citrus is not only our industry,” said Peter Chaires, director of association services at the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association. “It’s our way of life, and we’re going to do everything we can to hold onto it.”

Greening, spread by an insect called the Asian citrus psyllid, causes leaves to curl, discolor and drop, limbs to die and fruit to grow misshapen, too small and bitter.

Alex Heller, 34, vice president of the 78-year-old Heller Bros. in Winter Garden, said greening is forcing growers to pull and replace their trees or sell land that has become more valuable for development.

Some growers are diversifying into blueberries, peaches, olives, avocados and tea and even pinning their hopes on hops for beer.

But none will generate anywhere near the cash that citrus does, nor is there a chance that all of the state’s 500,000 acres of citrus will be converted to those crops, Florida Citrus Mutual spokesman Andrew Meadows said.

“Entire communities and families have been built on citrus, and nothing’s going to replace that,” Meadows said. “That’s why the urgency, why we’re being so aggressive in finding solutions.”

While some growers have given up, others are cautiously optimistic. Prices have risen as the orange crop has dwindled, and juice prices are up, too.

“Generally, I am more upbeat because as this thing continues to shrink in size, I think it will create a better opportunity for those who are left,” Heller said.

sjacobson@orlandosentinel.com or 407-540-5981

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