Florida citrus growers must always be on the lookout for pests and diseases that can damage their crops.
Citrus fruit can be damaged by greasy spot, blight, canker and other diseases. However, there is one disease that has the U.S. Department of Agriculture especially worried. Citrus greening has emerged in recent years and is considered by the USDA to be the biggest threat ever to the Florida citrus industry.
Citrus greening is responsible for more than $4 billion in economic losses since 2006. This has resulted in the loss of more than 8,000 jobs as well. The University of Florida Citrus Research and Education Center in Polk County is currently doing extensive research in an effort to eradicate citrus greening. The center has been approved to receive a $9 million federal grant for research in ways to prevent infection from the insect that causes the disease.
In addition to the federal grant, the research center received a generous donation from a central Florida resident who comes from a long line of Polk County citrus growers.
John Hughes died from leukemia in early August and left 100 acres of land in Polk County to the university to help further citrus greening research. According to Jackie Burns, the center's director, this will increase field research by 50 percent.
Researchers will use the extra acreage to perform more in-depth studies on a commercial level. Fertilizer, irrigation and studies of citrus rootstock are all planned for the near future. Studies using high heat will also be conducted to determine if heat will kill the disease causing bacterium.
Hughes' father and grandfather were Polk County citrus growers for many years, giving him first hand knowledge on the importance of disease control.
Citrus greening is a devastating disease that eventually kills trees. In the early stages, leaves develop blotchy mottle, which is an assymetrical yellowing of leaves. Within a few years, mottling spreads throughout the tree and it shows signs of decline. Infected trees often produce mishapen fruit that is extremely bitter and unsaleable. Experts recommend scouting for citrus greening several times each year. The symptoms are most noticeable from October until March.
Some local citrus growers are taking steps to keep the citrus greening bacterium out of their groves. Newly planted trees are started in greenhouses, where they stay until it is time to transplant them. Enhanced nutrition can also help keep trees producing fruit and may possibly slow down the progression of disease. This includes using fertilizers in combination with essential nutrients. However, citrus growers are relying heavily on on scientists to find a cure for citrus greening.
Finding ways to control or eradicate citrus greening is key to the continued success of Florida's citrus program. It is expected for the citrus industry to take another hard hit this year. In addition to citrus greening, the abundance of summer rain sets up perfect conditions for canker development which is always a concern for local growers. Polk County has over 80,000 acres of citrus trees, making it the state's leading citrus producing county.