MY VERO: What’s happening to our Indian River citrus?

Among the most vivid memories from my first stint in Vero Beach 35 years ago was driving with the car windows open, and taking in the sweet fragrance of the local orange blossoms.

They were everywhere, it seemed then, scattered throughout a community in which citrus was as much a part of its identity as seasonal visitors and spring training.

You didn’t need to go to the Yeehaw side of Interstate 95 to find acres of orange and grapefruit groves. They weren’t found only on the west edge of town. They were in town, too. Even on the barrier island.

“When we were growing up, after you went away to college, if you came back to Vero Beach, you came back to be a doctor, a lawyer or get into the citrus business,” said Jeff Cusson, a local Realtor who specializes in agricultural properties. “Citrus was very big here.”

It still is. Citrus still is a big slice of Indian River County’s economy – an industry that generates $450 million annually and provides about 4,000 jobs.

But it’s less than half of what it was in the mid-1990s, when the county’s 65,000-plus acres of commercial groves were generating nearly a billion dollars annually, combining with 16 major packing houses, processing plants and other related businesses – such as trucking, harvesting and equipment sales/repair – to provide 10,000 jobs for the local work force.

At one point during those peak years, in fact, growers in Indian River and St. Lucie counties accounted for 58 percent of the world’s grapefruit sales.

“That was the zenith for us,” said Doug Bournique, now in his 35th year as executive vice president of the 84-year-old, Vero Beach-based Indian River Citrus League. “The freezes in 1983 and ‘89 damaged groves all across the state, but, fortunately for us, most of our trees were spared.

“So growers in the Indian River region reinvested in themselves, planted hundreds of thousands more trees and those groves started to come into production in 1992, ‘93 and ‘94,” he added. “Growers here were left with a crop for years to come. We were in the catbird seat.”

Not only was Indian River citrus productive and prosperous – more private airplanes were flying in and out of the Vero Beach airport, more luxury boats were docked at local marinas – but it was also a hometown brand with a global reputation.

It was a source of wealth for some, employment for others and community pride for all.

So what went wrong? Everything … or so it seems. And it all hit at roughly the same time, a perfect storm of debilitating disease, severe weather and unexpected economics that swept through Florida a decade ago.

“It was a trifecta,” Bournique said, “but the three hurricanes in 13 months did a lot of damage, more than we knew at the time.”

The hurricane-force winds that accompanied Frances and Jeanne in September 2004, followed by Wilma in October 2005, put tremendous stress on what is essentially the trees’ vascular systems, so much so that many of them weren’t productive and some local growers lost as much as 80 percent of their crop.

Worse, though, was the lethal infection those destructive winds were carrying – a citrus tree-killing disease known as “greening,” which threatens to wipe out the industry entirely.

“If you’re in this business long enough, you learn to deal with losses,” said David Bass, production manager for Vero Beach-based Premier Citrus, one of Florida’s largest citrus landowners with grove holdings in six counties. “We’ve dealt with freezes, drought, hurricanes and canker, but we’ve never seen anything as tough as this one.

“This disease affects every grower and every grove and, right now, there’s no cure for it.”

Greening, also known as Huanglongbing (HLB), was first found in China more than 100 years ago. It wasn’t until 2005 that it was discovered in Florida, where it began killing citrus trees in Miami-Dade County.

Since then, the disease has spread throughout the state, transmitted by tiny bugs, known as psyllids, that carry the deadly bacterium in their saliva and feed on citrus tree leaves.

As many as 70 percent of Florida’s citrus trees are believed to have been infected, though no one knows the actual number because it can take five to 10 years for the effects of greening to become visible.

The disease results in misshapen fruit that can have a bitter taste, both of which make it unmarketable, and already has cost the state nearly 9,000 jobs and roughly $4.5 billion in lost revenue.

Two years ago, greening was found for the first time in groves in California and Texas, putting the nation’s entire citrus industry at risk.

“When it first hit here, a lot of people were in denial,” Bass said. “But once they started seeing the damage being done and finding out there wasn’t much that could be done about it, some of them got out.”

Growers either sold or abandoned their groves. Packing houses either shut down or consolidated. The industry shrank, with those still in business operating at reduced production levels and smaller profit margins.

Premier Citrus and other local growers that chose to stay and fight have incurred the additional, up-front expenses connected to combating the epidemic and caring for infected trees.

In some cases, production costs are up as much as 40 percent as growers rely on more pesticides to fend off the psyllids that spread the disease and the latest nutritional regimens to keep trees healthy.

“We have to spray more and feed them more often, but it’s the same for everyone,” Bass said, adding that these psyllids are as prevalent in Florida as mosquitos. “We’re all waiting and hoping that someone finds a cure. Scientists all over the world are working on this. In the meantime, we’re doing whatever it takes to hang on.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, UF Citrus Research and Education Center, and the U.S. Horticultural Research Laboratory in Fort Pierce have been working feverishly to find a remedy to save the endangered industry.

While some are working on a cure for greening, others are experimenting with breeding in hopes of creating disease-resistant citrus trees. And they appear to be getting close.

“Science is finally catching up with this disease,” Bournique said. “We’ve got the best scientists in the world working on it. Right here in Fort Pierce, there are more than 30 PhDs and 100 techs in that one lab. They’re making progress.

“Two years ago, we couldn’t keep a tree alive,” he added. “Now we can. In a couple of years, we might get rid of this thing completely.”

Most longtime local citrus leaders remain optimistic and say they plan to stay in the fight until there’s no chance to win. For now, at least, they’re producing, packing and selling enough fruit to remain profitable.

They believe they’ll survive greening, just as they overcame all the other hardships Mother Nature has thrown at them over the years. They say they have to believe they’ll get past this because they don’t want to think about the alternative.

“For most of us, this is a family business,” said George Hamner, president of Indian River Exchange Packers in Vero Beach. “Some of these families have been doing this for four or five generations, and a family business is very different from a corporate business. We’ve got employees who’ve been around as long as family members, and we’re all condemned to the same industry.

“A lot of people will be affected if this industry goes away; the impact will be felt throughout the community,” he continued. “So even though we don’t know what’s going to work – there’s no silver bullet, no light at the end of the tunnel, not yet – we’re learning more about this disease every day and we believe we’ll find something that can keep this industry alive.

“Hope is not a plan,” he added, “but as long as we can stay viable, we can hope.”

So can we.

As much as I miss the sweet fragrance of those orange blossoms, we’d all miss Indian River citrus more.

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