ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
In Florida, oranges are so important they're on the state's license plates. But a disease called citrus greening has taken a real toll on the state's signature crop. Researchers and growers are working on a solution, but they received a shock this month. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that there would be a 20 percent decline in Florida's orange production this season. It's a drop so steep that some in Florida re questioning how much longer the citrus industry can survive. NPR's Greg Allen has the story.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: While others are thinking about the holidays, for grower Jeff Schorner, November is the beginning of citrus season. He still citrus-fruit gift boxes by mail order and at his store, Al's Family Farm in Fort Pierce.
JEFF SCHORNER: This is - the season is just starting now. And we begin our harvest about three weeks ago, and we'll harvest all the way to about the beginning of June.
ALLEN: Right now, it's navel oranges. Next come tangerines, ruby red grapefruit and the popular honeybell tangelos. Citrus growers in Florida - also California and Texas - have contended with a variety of diseases and pests over the years. But none has posed the threat they now face with citrus greening. A tiny insect, the Asian psyllid, carries the disease, a bacterium that ruins the fruit and eventually kills the tree. It's been nine years now since the disease was confirmed in Florida. It affects every part of the state and has led to a steady decline in orange, tangerine and grapefruit production. Recently, the USDA stunned Florida growers when it announced it was lowering its estimate of this year's orange crop to 74 million boxes, which would make it the lowest harvest in more than 50 years. Florida's Agriculture Secretary Adam Putnam says the future of the state's $10 billion citrus industry now hangs in the balance.
ADAM PUTNAM: If the estimate plays out, it'll be half of what we harvested just four years ago. We are at a tipping point, and some would say we've blown past the tipping point.
ALLEN: That's the point at which there's no longer enough fruit to sustain all the juice plants and packing houses. If enough shut down, it could spell the end of industry that provides some 76,000 jobs in Florida. Putnam spoke at a state Senate workshop in Sebring, in the heart of Florida's citrus-growing region. Grower John Barben was also there. He's begun to dread the annual USDA crop estimate.
JOHN BARBEN: So it's just like having your heart stomped on every year at this time. And it's - we sort of joke every year, well, we'll know next June if we did the things right or not.
ALLEN: When citrus greening first emerged, researchers and growers pinned their hopes on finding a cure, an effective treatment or a new variety of disease-resistant trees. But so far, a cure has proved elusive. Instead, the industry has focused on strategies to keep infected trees healthy and productive as long as possible. At his 35-acre research facility in Vero Beach, Bob Adair has had promising results with something he calls metalized reflective mulch.
BOB ADAIR: It's a monomolecular layer of aluminum, a very, very thin coating of aluminum - very shiny, looks much like aluminum foil.
ALLEN: Underneath a row of grapefruit trees, the ground is covered by a silvery plastic sheet. It acts like a mirror, reflecting the light and heat of the intense Florida sunshine.
ADAIR: As we stand here, you probably can feel the heat. And what we're looking at are trees that are growing 50 perfect faster than trees that were planted with the grower's standard, which is bare ground.
ALLEN: Even more important, Adair says, is that on trees surrounded by the shiny groundcover, he's seeing fewer Asian psyllids, the insects that carry citrus greening disease. He believes it could be a valuable tool for growers to keep their growths productive while the search continues for a cure. The University of Florida says it's developed a genetically modified orange tree that appears to be resistant to citrus greening. But even if that turns out to be the silver bullet growers have been waiting for, with field testing and government approval, it will still be years before it becomes commercially available. And that may be too late for many in Florida's citrus industry. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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