Are Oranges the New Lake County Blues (Again)?

July 17, 2015

The 2014–15 Florida citrus season ended on a sour note with the announcement that the orange harvest is projected at 96.4 million boxes — 60 percent less than the 2003 harvest, and the first time in 49 years that the harvest has fallen below 100 million boxes.

For the few grove owners still operating in and around Mount Dora, it’s just another sign of harder times.

Lake County was once the king of Florida citrus production. You could drive out from Mount Dora or Eustis and see nothing but rolling miles trees in careful rows weighed down with oranges and grapefruit.

In the 1950’s and ’60s, development began eating into the groves further south in Orange County — land for development always fetched a better price than for farming.

But Lake County was still pristine — a citrus powerhouse. In 1939, a Eustis grower shipped 1,000 rail cars of citrus up north to stores he owned. In 1956 the city of Clermont raised the 226-foot Citrus Tower in honor of the county’s citrus titans. Citrus production in Lake County peaked in 1979–80, when it produced 44.2 million boxes, nearly half of the state’s current production.

Then came the great freezes of 1981, 1983, 1985 and the big Christmas freeze 1989, when temperatures dipped into the teens.

Most of Lake County’s 117,000 acres of groves were wiped out. Big grove owners sold their land to developers and moved south, and Lake County’s suburban land rush was on. In 1980, Lake County’s population was 104,870. Today, more than 300,000 live in the county. Groves have been razed for Mount Dora Country Club, Loch Leven Estates and the Medallion Home property.

Now only about 10,000 acres of citrus remain in Lake County. Only two relic groves operate within Mount Dora proper — a 7.8 acre grove on 11thAvenue, and several small groves near Grandview.

Statewide, the continued decline in citrus production has been due bacterial blight imported from abroad — probably in infected fruit shipped into Florida for local markets, first with citrus canker in the mid-1980s and in the late 2000s with citrus greening.

Mary Beth Tagliarino is a Mount Dora resident and federal agriculture entomologist working with area farmers and grove owners to address the problem.

“Citrus canker was bad enough,” she says. “With canker, the bacterium is spread by wind-driven rain. Severe infection may cause defoliation, dieback, severely blemished fruit and premature fruit drop, all reducing the quality of fruit.’

The only way to deal with it has been destruction of infected trees. Many grove owners divided up their groves so that if a tree became infected, only part of their citrus crop would be destroyed.”

Canker may have been eradicated but in 2004 but few residential homeowners in Dade and Broward County refused to have their canker infected trees removed. The 4 hurricanes that year spread the bacterium throughout Florida so widely that eradication is unfeasible.

Citrus greening, also known as Yellow Dragon disease, is caused by a bacteria originating in Asia. This bacteria is spread by a tiny insect, also originating from Asia, called the Citrus Psyllid by feeding on the citrus leaves. The leaves become blotchy, the fruit miss-shapen, and the juice in time turns sour, making the fruit wholly unmarketable.

While posing no threat to humans or animals, the infections have been so devastating that the entire state is now under a quarantine for both canker and greening.

Tagliarino and her fellow Mount Dora inspectors (working in tandem with state and county extension departments) monitor 270 groves per cycle in Orange and Lake County, collecting psyllid population data. The data is fed into a computer at the University of South Florida showing the influx of the psyllid population. This information is used in planning coordinated psyllid treatment recommended to the citrus growers

Almost every grove around here has greening, she says.

University of Florida researchers are working hard on possible treatments for the disease, she says. A new one called thermo heat steaming has a tent is lowered over a sick tree and then steam heat added until the inside temperature is 130 degrees. Unfortunately, it’s a time-consuming and costly procedure — about $3,000 an acre to treat — and so far only about 30% effective. “That’s just too much for these small family growers,” Tagliano says. Steaming kills all bacteria and insects, including the “beneficials” — organisms that protect the trees.

Now South Florida citrus is dealing with another imported plague — citrus black spot, a fungal disease that blotches the fruit and makes it unsalable. It has been highly devastating world-wide, and was first discovered in the United States in 2010 in a grove of Valencia oranges in South Florida.

Grove owners have tried other crops, such as peaches and blueberries, but none have been as profitable as citrus growing used to be. They’ve tried to keep the value of fallow properties down by planting pine trees, keeping their agricultural exemption.

To get an idea how much more valuable land is for development than farming, Mel DeMarco of the Citizen recently reported that Medallion Home was finally granted the same exemption for the 117 acres they have yet to develop, claiming the land was now being planted with pines. What this means is that their estimated tax bill for the undeveloped parcels will decrease from $33,061.26 in 2014 to an estimated $3, 673 in 2015. (Mel Demarco of the Mount Dora Citizen reported on it here.)

Mount Dora citizens who have questions about their own citrus trees can go on the web to Save Our Citrus . An inspector will arrange to come to their property to inspect their trees.

Currently the Florida citrus business is worth about $10 billion. “Everyone is really trying to help,” Tagliarino says, “but if a treatment isn’t found soon, the entire industry may headed for very tough times.”

Better times for Lake Citrus

— David Cohea (djcohea@gmail.com)

Originally published at www.mountdoracitizen.com on July 17, 2015.