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The challenges of citrus

SEBRING - The citrus greening disease and the unusually warm and dry weather has caused fruit to prematurely drop from the trees, resulting in a 10 percent cut in Florida's overall crop forecast. Some experts and growers say this is the year that greening - which is caused by a fast-spreading bacteria - finally translates into crop losses. Greening is spread by insects, and there is no cure. It leaves fruit sour and unusable and eventually kills the infected tree. Highlands County citrus grower Bobby Barben said Monday the weather and greening has been tough on growers this season.
Agreed Highlands County Citrus Growers Association Executive Director Ray Royce, who thinks that "the expectation is there is some level of greening in every single grove in Highlands County." While the weather and greening has negatively impacted the volume of fruit this year, neither he nor Barben could provide a crop estimate for Highlands County. The yield is affected by a lot of different factors, explained Royce. "We are still only halfway through this season. We will see how the weather goes for the next month; we will see whether we get some early spring rain and see what is going on." Barben said the rainfall has been infrequent, but heavier when it has rained, which is "problematic." "In September we had all that rain and we had a really good crop of oranges, and then it turned dry and all these oranges hit the ground," he said. Now it appears Valencia oranges are going to hit the ground due to greening, Barben said. "It's a tough business and then when the climatic things start working against you, you are in trouble," he said. Barben's early crop yield was similar to last year's, but he couldn't estimate his overall yield. Some of the early crop has fallen to the ground before, he said, but normally he has not seen these many Valencia oranges falling to the ground. "It's a new territory for me," he said. "I would have a hard time guessing" the crop yield. Compounding the loss of fruit is the added costs of battling the insect, the Asian citrus pysllid, that spreads the greening disease. "Before greening we were probably spraying four or five times a year … now we are spraying 10 times a year and realizing that is not enough," Barben said. "Now we are trying to figure out how to spray 15 times a year. "We used to spend $1,000 an acre; now we are spending $2,000 an acre." Despite the challages, Barben believes growers will make a profit this year. "I think the citrus growers will be all right this year," he said. At the beginning of the season last October, the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicted that the state's total citrus crop would yield 154 million boxes of fruit. But that forecast has been downgraded to 141 million boxes. "The USDA has reduced the estimate three times in one season," said Adam Putnam, Florida's agriculture commissioner. "For a non-freeze, non-hurricane year, that's extraordinary. I'm very concerned." Citrus prices could go up next year with a lot less fruit compared to this year because to greening.

The Associated Press contributed to this report mvalero@highlandstoday.com (863) 386-5826