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DUNDEE, FL — On a sunny late March morning, Steve Callaham is sitting in the cab of his pickup truck looking at citrus trees. That’s not unusual for a Florida farmer. But these are itty bitty trees, tiny little things. As in recently planted citrus trees – 300 acres worth.

It’s a bold investment in the future in a state where the citrus industry has been literally ravaged by HLB, citrus greening disease – 162,000 acres of groves, $8 billion in revenues and 7500 jobs down the drain since 2007. Some growers have quit the business altogether. Others have diversified into other crops. Some have sold out to commercial developers. Some question whether the industry will even survive.

(SEE PHOTO SLIDESHOW BELOW)

So these trees are something of an anomaly for a Sunshine State citrus grower. Call it farmer faith. Callaham is chief executive officer of the Dundee Citrus Growers Association co-op here. He and his colleagues have chosen to fight the good fight and stay in the citrus game.

A tree-ripe Florida peach. (Photo by Chip Carter)

But they’re changing things up. You don’t survive in farming by taking dumb risks. Dundee and its marketing arm Florida Classic Growers were early adopters of the burgeoning Florida peach program, jumping in eight years ago. Last year they marketed their first crop of Florida blueberries in a growing program. A 40-acre experiment with growing seedless, easy-peel citrus varieties undercover (think of a giant screened-in back porch) will expand by 150 acres this year. And Dundee is still putting citrus trees outdoors in the ground, optimistic that a solution to greening will be found before it takes out the new groves.

Diversification is Key to Survival

“Diversification is extremely important and that’s what led us into the peach business in the first place and the blueberry business in the second place,” Callaham says. “But not just diversifying into other crops, but diversifying how you’re going about the citrus part of the business too. That’s one of the things we’re doing and some of our colleagues think we’re a little crazy.”

Despite the devastation of recent years, Florida citrus still directly accounts for 62,000 jobs and pumps about $9 billion into the state economy annually, even though production has plummeted from an all-time high of 250 million boxes 20 years ago to 104 million boxes in 2014 to a projected 90 million boxes in 2017 – a 70 percent drop. And even with steady annual acreage loss, there are still about a half-million acres of Florida citrus in production.

Mandarins impacted by HLB. (Photo courtesy USDA)

Huanglongbing is the official name for greening. Once it attacks a grove, it can cause complete destruction within two years. HLB originated in Asia and was first detected in Florida in 2005.

It has wreaked havoc ever since, as it has in the other citrus growing regions of the world impacted: China, Taiwan, India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Pakistan, Thailand, the Ryukyu Islands, Nepal, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Réunion, Mauritius, Brazil, Paraguay and Mexico. Five years ago HLB popped up in a citrus grove in Texas and two months later was found in Los Angeles, CA, though the spread has so far been contained in both those states.

‘Don’t Write Our Obituary Yet’

A 2016 grower survey by the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) survey shows that 90 percent of citrus acreage and 80 percent of trees in Florida have been infected.

That’s a bit optimistic, says Andrew Meadows, spokesman for Florida Citrus Mutual, the voluntary cooperative association dedicated to helping Florida citrus growers produce and market their crops at a profit since 1948.

“There’s 100 percent infection. What growers are trying to do now is protect young trees from infection but they know eventually those trees are going to get infected with the endemic nature of the disease.”

And yet Florida citrus farmers keep going.

“There’s no loss of hope – we’re still in the groves,” Meadows says. But “there’s an evolution going on. What you have now is full-time dedicated growers, you don’t have gentleman farmers or people who do it as a hobby, you have world-class farmers that are using every technique they know of to battle the disease.

“On the other hand, somebody might say small growers are disappearing, and there has been an exodus and that’s unfortunate. But not everybody is a 10,000-acre operation, there are niche growers still out there. There’s things going on and there’s capital being invested. Even in down-cyclical times people see opportunities and there are a lot of growers who think they can grow a crop with the tools at their disposal. It’s all a risk play: Are you willing to deal with the risk in order to get a return? It’s a different environment but it’s not a throw-in-the-towel environment. Don’t write our obituary yet.”

‘We’re In It for the Long Haul’

Healthy citrus in Dundee, FL. (Photo by Chip Carter)

Said Daniel Hunt, a fourth-generation grower with Hunt Brothers Cooperative that grows for Seald Sweet International and for Florida’s Natural juice, “We’re in it for the long haul and are doing everything we can to preserve a promising future for generations to come. We still believe in Florida citrus and we will fight to get through this rough period in our history.”

Last year, the Florida Department of Citrus had to turn to taxpayers for assistance for the first time in its 82 year history of marketing Florida’s crop. Declining revenues led to a $5 million infusion from state general revenues. In prior years, the department has been able to cover its costs through a tax paid by growers on every box of citrus sold.

Now that money may go away as well. A state budget battle could mean cuts of 60-80 percent for marketing of Florida ag products, including citrus and the hugely successful Fresh From Florida program.

“This is a political assault on a good program that will have real consequences on real people,” Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said in a recent statement. “Gutting the Fresh From Florida program will hurt Florida’s small farms the most — their ability to raise awareness for the high quality of their locally grown products and compete against lesser quality products from foreign countries.”

So growers again are left to band together and fend for themselves as they attempt to save an industry.

Genetics, Nutrition, Spraying, Hope, Faith and Prayer

Genetics could help. Citrus cultivars spliced with spinach genes developed at Texas A&M a few years ago appear to be immune to greening and are currently under trial in south Florida; since the resulting product is genetically modified, the cultivars will have to pass U.S. Environmental Protection Agency screening and then win a consumer battle for acceptance. The process will take years.

The Sugar Belle, a mandarin orange hybrid developed by IFAS and released in 2009, also shows natural resistance to HLB “that can’t be explained yet” but growers “have observed that these show an innate tolerance to HLB,” Meadows said.

Sugar Belles have natural resistance. (Photo courtesy of Univ. of FL IFAS)

Said Hunt, “We’re removing acreage of the wrong types of varieties that are less disease resistant, like Sunburst or Honey tangerines or Pineapple oranges, those varieties are frequently being pushed up. And then replacing with higher density sets of more tolerant varieties, like Sugar Belle. On juice oranges some Valencias are being replanted along with Vernias… replacing Pineapple oranges. We’re also replacing Sunbursts with Bingos and Early-Pride which are easy-peel seedless variety tangerines.”

USDA has set aside $31.5 million to study greening. Meanwhile growers are trying everything they can think of to combat it – nutritional cocktails, coordinated spraying to control the tiny Asian citrus psyllid that spreads the infection, antibacterial management, sanitation, removal of infected plants, frequent scouting and hope, faith and prayer.

Callaham and his colleagues are using all of those. But they believe growing undercover might be the brightest hope for the industry – and increase production by two to three times per acre and solve other problems as well.

One knock on Florida citrus has always been that it’s not as pretty as what’s grown in California due to wilder weather. And because of difficulties in controlling cross-pollination, Florida growers have had a tough time producing a true seedless, easy-peeler to compete with the ever-more popular clementines that are dominating the citrus category right now.

‘You Can’t Be a Farmer and Not Be An Optimist’

“There are so many other benefits to growing undercover – a tree outside right now has a plethora of issues, greening being the biggest, but that’s just a small piece of it,” Callaham says. “You’ve got canker, grasshoppers feeding on the leaves, citrus scab, a hailstorm, cross-pollination, so many things you’re getting from the outside. You can look at the trees growing undercover and they’re going to be almost flawless under screen. No bugs, no chew marks, no windscar – literally perfect.”

It may not be feasible to enclose a half-million acres of Florida citrus groves, and Meadows says Dundee’s faith in growing undercover is not universally accepted. “It depends on who you talk to and when you talk to them and who they’ve just talked to. You get opinions all over the board. There are growers who are all in, growers who are all out, growers who are in between, so it’s almost a day to day thing.”

But Callaham believes “short- to mid-term, growing undercover is going to be the solution. And even if we find that tolerant rootstock or tolerant scion or variety, we’ve still got to get enough budwood to put trees out there and it takes years to produce a viable crop — it might be 10 years before you’d see volume out there.”

The screen for the enclosures has a lifetime of about a decade. When it needs replacing “you can make a decision whether to leave it up or not if we have a solution to greening or some magic cocktail that makes it go away. But I believe you’re going to get a higher quality fruit, a sustainable practice using tremendously less water, less fertilizer, less pesticides, a prettier piece of fruit and higher production per acre. And it will probably have a following in the market that will differentiate it from fruit that’s grown outside.”

So if that’s the case, how does Callaham explain that 300 acres of tiny new citrus trees planted in open fields beneath the Florida sun?

“That’s farming,” Callaham laughs. “You can’t be in farming and not be an optimist.”

Citrus growers aren’t giving up on their main crop, but they are diversifying. This slideshow presents a single day’s journeys through citrus, peach and blueberry production of Dundee Citrus Growers/Florida Classic Growers. (Photos by Chip Carter)

1

Florida Classic Growers President Al Finch and Dundee Citrus Growers CEO Steven B. Callaham in a newly planted 300-acre citrus grove outside Dundee, FL.

2

Blossoms on a new citrus tree

3

This 300 acre grove or new citrus plantings near Dundee is a perfect example of “farmer faith” in a state ravaged by citrus greening disease

4

Unripe fruit on young citrus plantings

5

An established citrus grove

6

Callaham and Finch in a Florida peach orchard that represents part of the co-op’s diversification efforts

7

Eat a peach

8

Workers transfer peaches from harvest baskets

9

Some Florida citrus growers are investing heavily in peaches

10

A prime example of a Florida peach

11

The Florida blueberry industry is booming, representing yet another area of diversification for some growers like the Dundee/Florida Classic co-op

12

A worker dumps berries into a container for transport to the packing facility

13

Blueberry workers are often paid by the hour instead of by volume to ensure gentle handling of fruit

14

The highways of Polk County, FL are flanked by fruit groves

15

Back at the packinghouse, blueberries make their way into production

16

Workers sort the fruit for size and quality

17

Up, up and away…

18

Another group of sorters

19

The finished product on the way to retail

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