Nature, Economy Put the Squeeze on Orange Growers

Citrus is a $9 billion business for Florida. But after two hurricanes, flourishing new agricultural diseases and rising land prices, Florida citrus growers are wondering whether it's time to get out of the business. Russell Lewis of member station WGCU in Ft. Myers reports.

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You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Florida is synonymous with oranges. The official state beverage is orange juice, the state flower an orange blossom, and the official fruit is, of course, an orange. The citrus industry is worth an estimated 9 billion dollars to the Florida economy. Faced with new agricultural diseases and rising land values, the state's signature industry is feeling the squeeze. Russell Lewis of member station WGCU reports from Fort Meyers.

Mr. RUSSELL LEWIS (Commentator, WGCU in Ft. Myers): It's a warm, breezy day and Mike Presley, in his dusty boots, crosses through his 160-acre field to an island of tangerine trees. Presley stretches up and plucks a fruit off a tall tree, about 14 feet high.

Mr. MIKE PRESLEY (Florida citrus-grower): And the sunburst times brings a beautiful color, great taste in a piece of fruit.

LEWIS: Presley pulls a small pocketknife out of his faded blue jeans.

Mr. PRESLEY: I'll go ahead and cut this a little to see how juicy it still is.

LEWIS: Presley is proud of his fruit, but there's not much left to be proud of. There used to be 9,000 fruit trees on this plot of land between Ft. Myers and Lake Okeechobee. Now, there are just a few rows. Late last year, his growth became infected with canker, a bacterial disease that attacks citrus. He had to destroy virtually all his beloved trees.

Mr. PRESLEY: It's really a heart breaker. It's like losing part of your family.

LEWIS: Canker has plagued the Florida citrus industry since 1995. The disease scars the fruit and makes it fall off the tree early. Canker gets worse every time a hurricane blows over because the high winds and rain spread the disease. After two years of devastating storms, the federal government says eradication of canker is now impossible, and there's a new threat, greening, which is spread by a moth-like insect. Unlike canker, it kills the tree. University of Florida citrus expert, Pete Timmer, says greening has the potential to destroy the industry and growers.

Mr. PETE TIMMER (Citrus expert, University of Florida): They're afraid of it, and certainly, it warrants a lot of concern.

LEWIS: Worldwide, greening has killed more than 60 million trees. Florida's citrus industry has endured tough times before; deep freezes in the 1980s, canker in the '90s and increased competition from Brazil. Now, with canker, greening, hurricanes and urban growth, citrus experts are starting to raise the warning flag. Ron Hamel is with the Gulf Citrus Growers Association.

Mr. RON HAMEL (Executive Vice President, Gulf Citrus Growers Association): To say the least, we're probably facing the most threat to our industry that we've ever experienced in the history of the industry.

LEWIS: These threats are already too much for some growers. Miller Kouse(ph) had 240 acres of groves until six months ago. That's when canker wiped it all out. He's seen land values quadruple around him. Now, he's selling off a big chunk of his land for $20,000.00 an acre.

Mr. MILLER KOUSE (Florida citrus-grower): You know, it's just, it's an economic decision, but it's a tough decision. Some of this land's been in the family for 60, 70 years, so it's, you know, it is part of the family at that point.

LEWIS: Ron Hamel of Gulf Citrus Growers says Kouse, like many other of the state's 10,000 growers, find themselves facing tough decisions.

Mr. HAMEL: The majority of growers would like to stay in the citrus industry. The question is how? That's where we are now as an industry, trying to look at how we can do that.

LEWIS: Things like growing citrus in greenhouses and finding more efficient ways to farm. Hamel is encouraged by some recent news. After several years of declines, orange prices have finally started to go up. If growers can hang on, he says, the citrus industry can shake off this sour taste.

For NPR News, I'm Russell Lewis in Ft. Myers, Florida.

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