Few Floridians outside the agriculture belt realize the state's $9 billion citrus industry -- responsible for 76,000 jobs -- is fighting for its life against a bacterial disease with no cure.
For the first time this year, it has been found in all 32 counties where citrus is grown.
Citrus greening, introduced to Florida in 1998 probably through the Port of Miami, is spread by a vector called the Asian citrus psyllid -- an insect no larger than the head of a pin. Infected trees produce misshapen, unmarketable and bitter fruit. Over time, it inhibits the trees ability to produce fruit. After becoming infected, trees usually die in three to five years.
The only way to control the disease is to remove the tree.
Researchers estimate that more than half of Floridas citrus groves are infected with citrus greening.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has cut its forecast for Florida oranges this season by 6 percent, a significant reduction during a season unaffected by freezes or hurricanes.
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, whose family owns citrus groves, admitted he's concerned. In a statement to Sunshine State News, he said, Citrus greening is an existential threat to ... the citrus industry. We must invest in research and eradication efforts to protect the long-term sustainability of Floridas signature crop.
"This year was a real kick in the gut," he said. "(Citrus greening) is now everywhere, and its just as bad as the doomsayers said it would be.
All you have to do to see the impact of this unwanted citrus disease, says Putnam, is take a ride down U.S. 27 along the ridge and look at the decline in grove health.
Remarkably, on Thursday the Coca-Cola Co. announced a $2 billion investment to plant 25,000 acres of new orange trees in partnership with Cutrale Citrus Juices and Peace River Citrus Products.
Putnam said Coca-Colas investment in Florida citrus will not only bolster Floridas citrus industry, it will have a tremendous impact on the states economy over the next quarter of a century.
According to an economic impact study by the Florida Department of Citrus, the direct economic impact of 5 million orange trees is about $4.8 billion over 25 years - or about $192 million each year.
The total economic impact (including the direct, indirect and induced impacts) over the 25-year period is $10.562 billion -- or $422 million per year.
Indirect business tax gains are estimated at more than $369 million over 25 years.
All told, said Putnam, the Coca-Cola Co.s investment will create more than 4,100 new jobs in Florida.
The commissioner said the Florida Department of Agriculture is fighting back hard. In partnership with the USDA and the citrus industry, it manages the health of Floridas signature crop through the Citrus Health Response Program (CHRP). It's a program designed to protect the health of the industry at every level of citrus production, from root to fruit.
Greening has crippled citrus production around the world, including in Asia and Africa, researchers at the University of Florida told The New York Times. A decade ago, psyllids were discovered in Brazil, which, with its abundant rural land, has tried to outrun the disease by removing countless trees and planting new acres. Florida is second in the world market only to Brazil in orange juice production.
Floridas thousands of growers have moved aggressively against the disease. They self-imposed a tax and over the last six years lashed out $60 million to create a research foundation to eradicate greening. The federal Department of Agriculture also has spent millions in the fight.
More money is coming. The Florida Legislature this month approved $8 million toward greening research, and that's a record sum.A bill to fund up to $150 million in research over five years was shot down by Congress earlier this year, amid concerns about the fiscal cliff. But now, as more and more members of Congress are becoming aware of the problem,U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson is pushing a bill to set up a research trust fund using money from a tariff on imported orange juice.
Nelson's bill likely will be successful. Florida is no longer the only state in the greening fight. The disease has spread to Texas, California and Arizona. Officials in all three states are anxiously watching what happens in Florida, joining the fight to speed the research.
Reach Nancy Smith at email@example.com or at (850) 727-0859.