Agri Leader

Quest for new citrus varieties expands

Florida’s citrus industry has a major new catalyst for the expedited introduction into the state of new varieties that offer competitive advantages while also protecting growers from the diseases and pests that have intermittently plagued them for decades.

On June 16, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) debuted the $2 million, 25,000 square foot Florida Citrus Repository in Alachua County. The complex, which features four greenhouses and an office/laboratory building, expands the FDACS Citrus Germplasm Introduction Program, which provides a way to safely introduce healthy new citrus varieties into the state.

The new facility features advanced disease and pest detection capabilities and robotics that make work easier for its staff.

Between 2003 and 2012, the program released 46 new citrus varieties from California, Texas, Spain, Australia, Italy, Japan, Nepal, South Africa, Israel and China.

The new facility will expedite the process further and release as many as 20 to 30 new varieties each year.

Although the new variety breeding program will help in the long fight against the “citrus greening” that has devastated the industry, its more important focus is the ongoing and continuous development of commercially viable new varieties that offer specific traits such as easy to peel seedless varieties or those with increased juiciness, said Peggy Sieburth, director of the new facility. For the last 18 years, she has served as director of a similar facility in Winter Haven that has been in operation for more than 50 years.

Sieburth and her team work collaboratively with USDA, University of Florida/IFAS and the non-

profit New Varieties Development and Management Corp. in Maitland.

In the past, Sieburth said, it could take as long as 10 years or more, depending on variety and place of origin, to get final approval to introduce a new citrus variety into commercial production. And a new variety from China typically requires much more testing than one from California.

One goal of the new facility is to be able to test and approve for field trials a new variety from a relatively safe source such as California in less than a year.

Sieburth now works with five breeders - two from USDA and three from University of Florida IFAS. “Our work is also designed to make sure we continue to compete in the commercial market and are able to maintain our market share against citrus from other places like California and Spain,” she said.

State-of-the-art research and development sometimes means bringing in a variety that has no real commercial potential, but offers good breeding material. “That means, for example, that breeders who requested it can continue to create varieties that are resistant to greening,” Sieburth said.

Peter Chaires, executive director of New Varieties Development and Management Corp. (NVDMC), said the new facility “will greatly enhance the ability of Florida Department of Agriculture to clear new citrus plant material through the quarantine process. It substantially expands their greenhouse capability. It expands their laboratory and office space. It will enable them to process material coming in from other states or countries much more expeditiously and also handle a higher volume of material.”

Created in 2005 and funded to date by the Florida Citrus Commission, NVDMC’s role is to

improve the competitive position of Florida citrus growers by developing new varieties with

specific traits that offer market advantages. Its work is not directly related to greening.

The organization also acquires licenses for new varieties and subcontracts those to growers.

One of NVDMC’s most important functions is its “Fast Track” program with UF/IFAS. It looks at particularly promising new varieties and works to expedite their commercial introduction.

This summer, the first nine new varieties in the “Fast Track” program are going to field tests with 61 growers. Later this summer, three additional new varieties will be announced and also go to grower field trials.

NVDMC also operates an “Early Evaluation” program with USDA. They are now seeking growers for trial sites for experimental oranges, tangerines and grapefruits. “It’s on a first come, first serve basis and we’re looking for six to 10 trial sites,” Chaires said.

While Florida’s “greatest and best hope is still varieties that are developed within the state,” Chaires said, “it’s still very important for us to be able to bring in varieties from other states and other parts of the world and test them for their suitability to our climate.”

And as a result, he said, the new Florida Citrus Repository is a vitally important addition to the citrus industry’s resources.