Adversity isn’t a stranger to Florida citrus growers. Throughout Florida’s history of citrus production, producers have dealt with damages left in the wake of multiple hurricanes and freezes.
Larry Black is a fifth-generation citrus grower and general manager of Peace River Packing Company in Polk County, Fla. His family has been a part of the citrus industry for over a century, planting citrus trees when they settled in Fort Meade in 1852.
Peace River Packing Company was founded in 1928, when Black’s great-grandfather and a group of Fort Meade citrus growers decided to build their own packinghouse. His great-grandfather bought out the other shareholders by the 1950s, and the company has been owned and operated by the family ever since.
“Freezes have really defined the industry and been catalysts for change. Fortunately, we haven’t had any major freezes since the 1980s, when we had three. Those are etched in my memory because I saw impacts they had on the business and how things can change so quickly in agriculture,” said Black.
The Florida citrus industry has battled citrus greening, also called Huanglongbing (HLB), for over a decade. Greening is a bacterial disease that starves the tree of nutrients, damages tree roots and reduces the quality of the fruit. The first sign of greening was found in Sept. 2005.
“We first found greening in our groves in 2007, so it’s been a long battle,” said Black. “It was very isolated at first. We followed the best management practices at the time, which was to remove all infected trees as soon as they were identified. The level of infection was still at a low level and it was thought that we could slow the spread of greening by removing that inoculum.”
Greening in Florida is spread by the Asian citrus psyllid. This species has been present in Florida since the late 90s. Other than tree removal, there is no effective control once a tree is infected and there is no known cure for the disease.
“The psyllid was not an economic pest until we had greening. Once we found greening, we got very serious about controlling that psyllid that spreads it tree to tree,” he said. “Before greening, we were spraying our groves only six to seven times per year. Now, we are spraying 11 to 14 times per year.”
The USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) provides financial assistance to qualifying orchardists and nursery tree growers to replant or rehabilitate eligible trees, bushes and vines damaged by natural disasters through the Tree Assistance Program (TAP). Florida was approved under TAP to recognize citrus greening as an eligible cause of loss in 2014.
“TAP is a way to stay in the industry. Due to greening, trees aren’t going to live as long as they were before,” said Black. “Before greening, planting a tree was a 25-to-40 year investment. Today, when we replant a tree, we consider it a success if we can get fruit off that tree for 12 to 15 years.”
Since citrus greening is a disease, mortality related to citrus greening may be assessed over a six-year period. The loss period due to citrus greening begins when the grower first recognizes the disease in the stand, and ends when an infected tree becomes either biologically dead or no longer commercially viable.
“My family is committed to the citrus industry. It’s been very good to us,” said Black. “We want to stay in the industry, and the only way we can do that is to keep replanting.”
Producers interested in applying for this program must meet eligibility and payment limitation requirements to receive financial assistance.