The latest citrus forecast released this week by the USDA shows another precipitous drop in Florida production, with a revised projection of 50 million boxes for the 2017-18 season in the wake of Hurricane Irma. Many growers would say even that number is still too high. Yet some of them aren’t even taking the basic steps to protect their groves from further damage, according to a new study from the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS).

At its peak, Florida citrus produced 250 million boxes per year. Since the lethal – and incurable — citrus greening disease HLB was first found in the state a decade ago, that number has tumbled annually. This year’s rock-bottom bounce from Irma will mean that for the first time ever more citrus will be imported into the state for juice than grown there.

No one knew in 2004, when four hurricanes ripped through Florida in a matter of weeks, that along with the visible damage, those winds were carrying the HLB infection across Florida citrus producing counties. The full impact only became evident years later.

Now, in the wake of Irma’s unprecedented blow, some growers are opting to skip what is arguably the only effective defense against the spread of HLB: Coordinated spraying to control the vector, the tiny Asian citrus psyllid.

That’s the disturbing conclusion of the new IFAS study, conducted by Dr. Ariel Singerman, who recently published his findings in the Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy journal.

Infected trees in a Florida grove

Florida Citrus Mutual Spokesman Andrew Meadows told SPW, “It is very important that growers work together to manage the psyllid in this environment. Keeping the psyllid under control means we keep HLB under control. And as we go forward we need a cooperative spirit to get the industry back on its feet, that means being a good neighbor and communicating with growers in your area on the what, where and when of psyllid control. We cannot afford for groves to become breeding grounds for more psyllids.”

But the bad neighbors persist. SPW recently spoke with Dr. Singerman about his research and its implications for the future of Florida citrus:

SOUTHEAST PRODUCE WEEKLY – Coordinated block spraying is one of the few proven defenses against HLB – who would opt out of a protection as basic as that?

SINGERMAN — Unfortunately we have many examples not only of citrus, but of people not coordinating in general. To some extent, yes, it is surprising but not so much in some regards. If you think about it, particularly for this case, if growers need others in order to get the benefit of spraying, then that creates uncertainty – you don’t know what the others will do. That makes a grower or people in general more reluctant to do it because it’s not only what you do, but what others do as well.

SPW – That sounds kind of like the people who are opting out of having their children vaccinated.

SINGERMAN — When people decide to vaccinate or not, that has to do more with what they believe in themselves – you might want to vaccinate your kid even more because others are not. But in this case, the main source of uncertainty again comes from the fact that if the others are not going to do it, then you’re just going to waste your money doing it. Since you don’t know what others do, you think you’re better off not doing it. That is a belief that starts to become more widespread and it sort of fulfills itself. At the same time, it’s important – there’s no cure for HLB. So the sprays are not going to not bring back trees that are in bad shape or create higher yields, it’s just to keep the disease at a management level, particularly for the new trees that are in the ground. By the time they start bearing fruit at age 3 they are already infected.

Dr. Ariel Singerman of UF IFAS

SPW – Sounds like coordinated spraying is an ever-tougher sell, then.

SINGERMAN — It is hard and the reason why it is hard is because each of them are individual decision makers. It would seem to work to create an institution that would be in place to make them accountable, that would monitor what they do, and if they don’t, sanction them somehow. An institution not necessarily from the government down, but it could be created by the growers, from the bottom to the top, in order to create some sort of peer pressure. One of the things we find is the fewer number of people who need to coordinate, the closer together they are, the more likely they coordinate. There’s more certainty on the system. Smaller groups work better.

SPW – In 2004, as four hurricanes blew through the state, they spread a variety of plant pests and diseases through the state. A year later we first saw HLB in Florida. It was already too late to contain because the storms had done their worst. What is the likely impact of Irma on Florida citrus, this year’s crop aside?

SINGERMAN — Right now it seems to be one hit after the other. Right now it’s a very tough situation for many, many growers. Some may be exiting the industry because they think we cannot cope with the amount of losses they are sustaining. And the industry has been consolidating and it will probably continue to consolidate until someone finds a way of dealing with the disease – then it might start to recover. I think one of the main issues is the infrastructure going away – processors and packinghouses – and it might be really hard to get them back.

SPW — Is there a tipping point where Florida citrus can’t come back?

Abandoned groves present prime spawning grounds for HLB

SINGERMAN — Even if it’s going to be smaller, there will be a citrus industry in Florida – the question is what will the size be? I wouldn’t say anything about a point of no return. The disease is actually starting to spread globally – every citrus producing region will get the disease. Even in California, I’m not sure whether they’re going to learn from the mistakes or the things that Florida has already faced – it will be interesting to see how it works out. But people like citrus so eventually I think there will be a treatment or some sort of management strategy, it’s just a question of when.

SPW – If government can’t or won’t play the heavy and force growers to cooperate, what other kinds of things can those who want to stay in the deal do to hedge their bets?

SINGERMAN — Growers like being independent – it will likely be more effective if growers themselves organize this space. But if someone wants to start fresh and plant a new grove — I believe from recent talk this may be happening — getting a large piece of land with multiple owners would make sure they have the ability to spray and coordinate and avoid this problem of the good neighbor/bad neighbor.

SPW – What other sorts of problems are manifesting themselves in Florida groves?

SINGERMAN — Since most if not all of the groves are now infected, people started to cut back on insecticides, not only on a coordinated basis but on an individual basis because many don’t see the point any more in controlling the psyllid. But I think in the last year there has been an increase in the use of insecticides and that has created other problems – there seems to be new resistance to some insecticides so that is a problem in itself.

Since March of 2016 we have been observing a spike in the number of psyllids and that has continued in 2017. We are at an all-time high of psyllids in Florida. The evidence is clear – the coordinated sprays do not kill HLB, they just buy time, that is the purpose. They are not the silver bullet or the solution in the long run.

Growers have to make decisions on what to do and what not to do based on their experience. It’s a complex decision making process. I believe that good psyllid control should be part of it. But many growers don’t, despite the evidence. They do have an impact beyond their own groves.

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