sOrlandoAn insect that you can barely see on your fingertips has forced Tim Brown, owner of Sarasota's Brown Grove Citrus & Produce, to completely rethink his business.

Because of the Asian citrus psyllid and the citrus greening that it has caused, Brown, whose family has farmed for nearly 100 years, no longer sells citrus wholesale to large companies. He simply doesn't have the excess fruit.

He reluctantly had to raise the price of the citrus that he sells at his roadside stand in Parrish and to customers at area farmers' markets. His production costs have at least doubled, and he's stopped selling citrus trees to the public.

Brown's not the only one facing tough times. Citrus growers around the Sunshine State - who collectively provided 65% of the nation's citrus in 2012-have been hit hard in the last five years by the bacterial disease called citrus greening, also known as Huanglongbing or HLB. Citrus greening was first identified in the United States in South Florida in 2005, but it's now found in the 30 plus counties of Florida that produce citrus, including Manatee and Sarasota, according to Denise Feiber, public information director for the plant industry division of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. It's also found in other citrus-growing states around the country.

sValenciaThe insect that carries the bacteria that causes citrus greening spreads the disease as it feeds on citrus leaves and stems. In turn, the affected trees produce lopsided or bitter fruit. Fruit that stays green even after an attack.

Within Florida, citrus greening has caused about $4.5 billion in economic damage and has affected about 8,200 jobs, says Andrew Meadows of Florida Citrus Mutual, a Lakeland based trade group that represents the citrus industry.

Greening also has led to a dramatic decline in the state's citrus production over the past two to three years, says David Steele, director of public relations for the Florida Department of Citrus in Bartow. This year's production is expected to slump to 115 million boxes, compared with 133 million boxes in the 2012-2013 seasons and a recent high of 242 million boxed in the 2003-2004 seasons. "All of the state's citrus-producing regions have been profoundly affected." Brown's Groves has taken a hit because of the high production costs now associated with citrus growing. Those extra costs go toward buying more trees-a tree's life is now 10 years or so compared with 30 to 50 years, said Brown. Brown also spends more money on fertilization and nutritional sprays to try to combat HLB.

Because his citrus production decreased, Brown could no longer wholesale his fruit as he simply has not had the excess.

Mixon Fruit Farms in Bradenton has had a similar experience. "You get a load of fruit and 25% of it you just have to throw away - and you're paying for it." says Janet Mixon, who operates the farm with her husband, Dean Mixon.

At your average citrus grove, production costs have skyrocketed from an average of $500 an acre to as high as $2,000 an acre, much of it going toward expensive pesticides and plant nutrition, says Meadows. There are also increased labor costs. Because of Mixon's location, they've had to do some spraying in the middle of the night when local businesses and schools were closed. That meant some employees had to return to spray in the wee hours.

The challenge of citrus greening has prompted some growers to exit the business entirely - something that Brown does not want or plan to do. "This is something we love, and we hope the future looks brighter," he said.

Still, battling greening will require immediate solutions, says Mixon. " If we don't get help, in two years there won't be any orange groves in Florida," he says.

EYEING SOLUTIONS

As Mixon alluded, citrus growers can't battle HLB on their own- and they need solutions fast. There are research dollars currently invested into finding cures for citrus greening, including $8 million at the state level and $21 million from the federal government appropriated this years, said Steele.

The 2014 Agricultural Act-commonly known as the Farm Bill-has allotted $125 million spread out over the next five years to help find a citrus greening solution. However, funding needs to reach growers sooner rather than later, says Mixon. The Mixon family visited Tallahassee in March to discuss the need for citrus greening dollars to reach growers directly.

Finding an overarching cure for citrus greening may not produce an immediate "magic bullet" although it may result in disease eradication or more resistant trees, says Steele. there's also research underway to help restore or sustain the productivity of existing and infected trees, says Steele.

The state's agriculture department is working closely wit industry, the University of Florida, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop and implement Citrus Health Management Areas, where growers are encouraged to take part in timed pest-control measures to achieve area-wide control of the psyllid, says Feiber.

The department is also involved with biological control facilities to produce higher volumes of an insect called the Tamarixia radiate, which attacks the Asian citrus psyllid.

There are also efforts underway to release wasps in areas where psyllid counts are particularly high. "Tiny wasps that parasitize Asian citrus psyllids but do not harm other pants or humans are being reared," says Feiber. A number of farms, including Mixon Fruit Farms, are trying nutritional sprays that could benefit their trees. Mixon says she and her husband feel positive about their current use of a spray that gives energy to the tree and kills the psyllid. They are still fertilizing trees, but not using other pesticides. Mixon is hopeful. "Right now, it's our only option," she says.

How consumers can help? Just what should citrus lovers do to help in the fight against citrus greening? First, you don't need to worry about the quality of the fruit your eating, says Brown. Greening often prevents fruit from ripening so the actual fruit you eat won't have greening problems. Plus, growers are always checking to make sure the fruit they use and sell is of top quality.

Next, if you enjoy a glass of orange juice, support brands that use Florida-grown oranges, Steele suggests. "We want consumers here and around the world to continue their longtime love affair with Florida citrus," he says.

Brown steers customers away from buying citrus trees right now because of the greening problems. However, down the line nutritional sprays like the one used at Mixon may be more readily available to backyard growers. If you already have backyard trees, make sure to report any greening symptoms to the state so they can track where it occurs, said Meadow.

You can support local famers in their efforts to diversify, says Brown.

Article written by Vanessa Caceres

Mixon Farms Facebook Page

Hours

Mixon's Groveside Market, Cafe & Gift Shoppe
Monday - Saturday: 10a.m. to 5p.m.
Closed Sunday

Mixon Office Hours
Monday - Saturday: 9a.m. to 5p.m.
Closed Sunday.

Contact & Location

Phone: 800 608-2525
Email: info@mixon.com
Address: Mixon Fruit Farms,
2525 27th St. E.
Bradenton, FL 34208