The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The end of Florida orange juice? A lethal disease is devastating the state’s citrus industry.

As the seasonal harvest approaches, “ghost groves” abandoned by growers are scattered across the state. “We’re in a race right now to save the Florida citrus industry,” a researcher said.

The Post's Darryl Fears traveled to Odessa, Fla., and witnessed how some growers are in a race to save the state's citrus industry. (Video: The Washington Post)

ODESSA, Fla. — Through a tiny office window behind William Kennedy Burchenal’s desk, a row of sickly orange trees could be seen standing in the bright Florida sun. Their limbs were withered and leaves deformed; the wood looked like rot.

They were thriving once, but that was before a citrus disease that scientists compare to HIV struck, crippling hundreds of trees and forcing the family to let part of the grove decline, close its juice blending business and put the entire operation up for sale.

“I’ve spent the last two years slowly dismantling my father’s dream,” Burchenal said of Cee Bee’s Citrus, established by his father, Bill, who died in 2016. “And it feels like crap.”

There are so many dead and dying Florida groves like Cee Bee’s that some economists have administered last rites to the state’s $9 billion citrus industry.

Ninety percent of the state’s groves are infected by a bacterium called Huanglongbing, which, like oranges, originated in China. The pathogen often prevents raw green fruit from ripening, a symptom called citrus greening. Even when the fruit does ripen, it sometimes drops to the ground before it can be picked. Under Florida law, citrus that falls from a tree untouched cannot be sold.

Post Reports: A race to save the citrus industry in Florida.

As the state prepares for the November to May harvest, thousands of growers have already quit, leaving “ghost groves” in their wake. More than 7,000 farmers grew citrus in 2004; since then, nearly 5,000 have dropped out.

About two-thirds of the factories that processed fruit to juice have shut down. The number of packing operations — which make oranges, tangerines and grapefruit look polished for picky buyers — has nose-dived from nearly 80 to 26. And 34,000 jobs were eliminated in the 10 years up to 2016, according to a University of Florida study.

The loss of so many farmers and citrus cultivation could be the death the state’s second-largest industry behind tourism, and one that produces more than 80 percent of the country’s orange juice, some economists say.

Florida’s Department of Citrus called Huanglongbing — which means yellow dragon sickness — “one of the most destructive foreign plant diseases imaginable” and acknowledged that it “has decimated the state’s iconic industry.”

The outlook is so bad that researchers at a compound of laboratories 30 miles south of Disney World in rural Lake Alfred are frantically trying to develop new root stocks to create trees that can better tolerate disease and genetically engineer new types of oranges to replace traditional varieties that are more vulnerable.

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“We’re in a race right now to save the Florida citrus industry,” said Michael Rogers, the director of the University of Florida’s Citrus Research and Education Center.

HLB, short for huan long bing, is spread by yet another invasive species — a tiny insect called a citrus psyllid, which sucks the bacteria into its gut as it feeds on citrus leaves. The insect then infects the next healthy leaf on which it feeds.

In 2016, scientists hoped world-renowned micro scanner Javier Alba-Tercedor's 3-D images of an Asian citrus psyllid could help save the U.S. citrus industry. (Video: Reuters)

Citrus psyllids reproduce so rapidly that they develop a resistance to insecticides within a year. Spraying to control them while trying to revive trees has driven up farming costs. Growers are spending $663 more per acre than they did the year before the discovery of the bacterium, a 54 percent increase.

A study by researchers at the University of Florida and Virginia Tech shows that climate change will allow the psyllid to spread to states north of Florida as their temperatures rise.

According to the report, the pest thrives in temperatures between 60 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit. That is bad news for growers in Florida, whose temperatures hover in that range year-round. It means the bug is here to stay.

“Much of the Florida citrus groves are already pretty inundated,” said Leah R. Johnson, an assistant professor of statistics at Virginia Tech and co-author of the study. “It’s going to be hard because we didn’t catch it early enough.”

A ray of hope

Despite the grim news, the state citrus department struck an upbeat tone recently, saying an increase in the amount of fruit boxed in the past two years was a sign that the industry was rebounding. Sales jumped from a low of 40 million boxes two seasons ago to 70 million last season.

Citrus growers “are resilient and optimistic about the future,” Shelley Rossetter, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Citrus, said in July. “Florida will continue to be a major producer of citrus for years to come.”

Two of the nation’s largest orange juice distributors — PepsiCo, the owner of Tropicana, and Coca-Cola, the owner of Minute Maid — were similarly optimistic, even though citrus production has dropped by half and revenue loss is approaching $5 billion.

If Florida’s citrus industry were to fail, the companies could buy citrus products from other parts of the world, such as Costa Rica and Brazil. But both say they support the Florida industry.

Tropicana partnered with the University of Florida to create disease-tolerant orange varieties in experimental groves. Minute Maid has invested billions to plant new trees and partnered with Bayer’s crop science division to develop an anti-bacterial agent to fight HLB.

“Without advanced tools to control citrus greening, the citrus industry in Florida could be out of business within 10 to 15 years,” Adrian Percy, the former head of Bayer’s research division, told a digital magazine in 2017.

But those tools are now available at the lab in Lake Alfred, Rogers said.

The lab has a storied history. Since it opened a century ago, scientists there have come up with innovations that have protected crops from damaging winter freezes and devised ways to improve the quality and flavor of juices.

To help the U.S. war effort in the 1940s, a research team led by Cedric Donald Atkins invented frozen concentrate orange juice there. It revolutionized the citrus industry and paved the way to decades of healthy earnings.

Now its scientists are working to unravel the mystery of HLB. But the pace is slow and time is short.

When the effort started nearly 15 years ago, the scientists quickly learned how fearsome HLB was.

“We actually had to go through the process of all of our researchers getting approval to work with what they call select agents, pathogens that are on the bioterrorism list,” Rogers said. “We had to go get fingerprinted by the FBI, have background checks run, and all that kind of stuff.”

HLB was discovered in China in 1919. Rogers theorized that smuggled tree clippings from Asia brought it to Florida’s Delray Beach area in 2005.

The citrus psyllids were waiting to spread it.

In 2012, after greening and fruit drop decimated citrus crops, Rogers ordered the overwhelming majority of the lab’s 25 professors and 250 staffers to stop whatever they were doing to focus on HLB.

Their work resulted in a key finding: The disease attacks citrus tree roots, robbing them of their ability to absorb the nutrients the trees need to survive.

Tripti Vashisth, an assistant professor of horticultural science at the University of Florida, said each fruit on a tree relies on nutrients drawn from the roots. To ration the dwindling food, the trees drop the fruit.

“Its own survival is more important, right?” Vashisth said. “Maybe it thinks, I can produce more food next year. Let me survive this year.”

Vashisth and her team developed a technique by which farmers spoon-feed smaller amounts of fertilizer to sick trees every two weeks, as opposed to massive amounts three times per year, so allowing roots to better absorb the nutrients.

In another part of the lab, researchers working under Jude Grosser, a professor of plant cell genetics, took an only-the-strong-survive approach to root-building. They analyzed which roots succumbed to the pathogen and replaced them with roots that were more tolerant. But the replacement couldn’t be just any root; it also had to produce a sweeter fruit for the market.

New fruit could soon replace the two vintage orange varieties — the Hamlin and the Valencia, a juice mixture that most Americans have gulped for decades.

The Hamlin’s bland juice is processed early in the season. It is mixed with the sweeter Valencia, which ripens around spring. Both are more vulnerable to HLB.

Grosser’s group created a sweeter fruit to replace the Hamlin. Two others could nudge out the Valencia.

But the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine still maintains a downbeat outlook. A breakthrough discovery for managing HLB in the near future is unlikely, it said in a study last year.

A dying dream

In the citrus industry’s heyday, Bill Burchenal purchased a tiny grove near Tampa on the edge of a swamp full of alligators and turned it into a 300-acre farm bursting with oranges, tangerines and grapefruit.

At age 70, the former developer learned to concoct juice blends so sweet that customers drove hundreds of miles to buy them.

But now, three years after Burchenal died, the juice stand at Cee Bee’s is closed. The fruit boxing operation is caked in dust. A “For Sale” sign recently hung at the entrance.

His son stood under a hot morning sun surrounded by hundreds of trees that were sick, dying or dead.

HLB lived up to its reputation, Burchenal said. Too many of his Hamlin and Valencia never turned orange. Some fruit ripened but dropped before harvest.

“And that’s part of what’s heartbreaking. You can get all the way up until harvest time, when you need to make your money for the year, and all of a sudden something goes wrong,” Burchenal said.

A Florida agricultural extension agent offered a solution that seemed preposterous to Burchenal and his son, Adam, who took over the grove’s management after his grandfather’s death: Raze hundreds of sick trees and start over.

“The smaller groves and independent groves like us, we just can’t do that,” Adam Burchenal said. It would take up to five years before the new trees produced enough fruit to break even.

At $12 each, the new, disease-tolerant trees being offered by the University of Florida cost far more than growers can afford.

“If you’re replanting 2,600 trees, it adds up pretty quickly,” Adam Burchenal said.

‘The most feared citrus disease in the world’

At KLM Farms in Alturas, grower Jerry Mixon anted up and rolled the dice to save his ailing farm.

Mixon carefully followed the advice of researchers at the university lab. He placed 70 of the 235 acres in a grove he owns under a milky white screen to protect it from the citrus psyllid.

At $20,000 to $25,000 per acre, according to a trade blog distributed by the Griffin Fertilizer Company, the cost of Citrus Under Protective Screen, or CUPS, would drive most farmers out of business.

But under the screen, tangerine trees bulged with so much fruit that their limbs bent. Mixon expects to fill thousands of crates of fresh citrus for as much as $40 per box when they ripen.

For Mixon, it’s the price of doing business in a troubled landscape. In 2012, the worst year in the greening era, he watched his entire citrus operation fail. Acting on the advice of the scientists, he clear-cut his trees and started over.

If the fruit hanging from his trees make it to market, Mixon will emerge as one of the industry’s few survivors and set an example.

“Well, I think the Lord had a lot to do with it,” Mixon said. Nodding at Rogers, he added: “I also think there was some great work these guys are doing.”

Sixteen miles east at Fort Meade, another farmer, N. Larry Black, toured a grove with trees bursting with lab-created fruit he hoped to sell — Sugar Belle oranges, Bingo tangerines and other new varieties planted with root stock created by the university to tolerate infestation.

It didn’t matter to Black that his farm is surrounded by others full of dying trees and, possibly, citrus psyllids. Looking toward the ghost groves, Black said, “I see opportunity.” He might buy them and expand his farm.

Black said his confident swagger shouldn’t obscure his fear of the disease.

Oh, it’s scary,” he said. “When you study citrus greening or HLB, you know it’s the most-feared citrus disease in the world.”‘