Courtesy California Citrus Mutual
SACRAMENTO — The devastation of the deadly tree disease huanglongbing has caused Florida to fall behind California in total citrus production for the first time in decades.
The Golden State produced 3.9 million tons of citrus fruit in the 2016-2017 season compared to 3.5 million tons from Florida, according to a National Agricultural Statistics Service report.
Florida’s 410,700 bearing acres still tops California, which grows citrus on 268,500 acres. But Florida’s yields have fallen dramatically from the 500 million tons the state produced just two years ago.
California’s ascension comes as huanglongbing, or citrus greening, has slammed the citrus industry in the U.S. southeast, causing an average loss of 7,513 jobs per year and costing growers nearly $3 billion in revenue, the University of Florida has estimated.
“It’s devastating because it just points out how disastrous HLB is,” said Bob Blakely, vice president of the Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual. He noted that Florida had been approaching 1 million acres of citrus before the disease hit.
“They’ve lost over half of their citrus production, and most of that was lost in the last eight years to HLB,” Blakely said.
Fresh production in Florida has declined 83 percent since the 1995-96 season while total citrus production has declined 74 percent, Citrus Mutual explains on its website.
When HLB was first discovered in 2005, growers at first thought grapefruit would be more tolerant of the disease than other citrus varieties, but grapefruit groves eventually succumbed, too, the organization notes.
“They’re on the verge of not even being able to produce enough fruit to maintain their infrastructure,” Blakely said. “They have plants closing and packing houses closing. It certainly concerns us that that could happen in California if we can’t control this disease.”
Only 26 packing houses in Florida boxed up fresh citrus last year, and four of them have announced they will close. Just 22 years ago, the state had 65 packing houses that shipped more than 150,000 cartons each, CCM explained.
While it does not harm humans, huanglongbing is fatal to citrus trees and has no cure. The disease has been detected in more than 70 citrus trees in Southern California urban areas, but the disease has not yet migrated into the Golden State’s commercial groves.
California is seeking to slow the spread of the disease to buy time for research. A quarantine covers about one-third of California, and Gov. Jerry Brown signed a budget in June that includes $10 million from the general fund for the state’s Citrus Pest and Disease Prevention Program. The allocation follows legislation this year that will enable the citrus industry to increase its 9-cent assessment to support the program.
Growers have invested more than $100 million into the program since 2009, according to Citrus Mutual. Most of that money has gone to trapping, treatments and surveys in urban areas to stop the spread of the Asian citrus psyllid, which can carry huanglongbing.
The industry has devoted $15 million toward HLB research and education, including $8 million from the grower-funded California Citrus Research Foundation to construct a biosecurity-level 3 lab near the University of California-Riverside. The USDA has spent more than $400 million since 2009 to address the disease nationwide.
Blakely said he is unaware of any Florida growers or packing houses considering moving West, but Florida industry representatives have visited the Golden State to learn about Mandarin orange varieties that could be more resistant to the disease, he said.
Florida growers planted more than 15,000 acres of new trees last year in very high density with hopes of getting at least 10 years of production from them before the disease takes them down, Blakely said.
“Rather than the life of citrus trees being 100 years, they’re looking to tear out and redevelop orchards every 12 or 15 years,” he said.