The citrus industry once dominated Central Florida. Orange groves stood as far as the eye could see, and the start of orange-picking season meant thousands of pieces of fruit would be sold to packers, juicers and people looking for fresh, local fruit.
While the industry over time has weathered devastating freezes and recovered, the past 15 years have been particularly unkind, as the spread of an infectious bacteria nearly wiped out Florida’s icon. While citrus may never reach the heights it once held, oranges may be slowly bouncing back.
Growers and scientists alike are optimistic.
“It’s too early to crow,” said Richard Marshall, owner of Marshall Groves in DeLand. “But we have more oranges than we had last year, and they’re bigger, plumper, juicier and tastier.”
Marshall has about 1,000 trees on his 7-acre DeLand grove.
He said both business and fruit are better than last year, and he hopes for a good season.
“This year, there seems to be a tiny bit of recovery,” Marshall said. “It’s too early to tell, and we’ve had a small but steady flow of regulars coming in. Everybody’s wearing masks, but that’s the only difference I know.”
In recent years, Marshall Groves was almost completely wiped out by citrus greening.
The citrus greening disease — infectious bacteria spread by an invasive insect called a psyllid — killed most of West Volusia’s citrus industry over the past 15 years.
There is no way known to reverse the infection of a tree once the citrus greening bacteria infect it. An infected tree will continue to produce green, sour fruit until it dies.
Researchers at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences extension in Volusia County are hard at work trying to combat the bacteria killing the Sunshine State’s iconic fruit.
Keeping Florida’s oranges alive
Not unlike Lue Gim Gong — the Cantonese orange-grower and horticulturist who settled in DeLand and fought against freezing temperatures to grow his fruit — UF researchers are battling against nature to save Florida’s oranges.
Karen Stauderman, UF-IFAS agent for commercial horticulture, said researchers are working hard on solutions that will help revive the industry.
CRISPR, also known as CRISPR-cas9, is a recently developed gene-editing tool that allows scientists to alter an organism’s DNA. First developed in 2012, CRISPR is still a new technology, but it has already helped revolutionize cancer research, according to the National Cancer Institute, and has shown promise for other disease research.
The gene-editing tool has raised controversy as well, as some fear that it could be used to create “designer babies,” or children with hand-selected genetic traits.
As scientists work to identify how the bacteria that cause citrus greening interact with oranges, Karen Stauderman, UF-IFAS agent for commercial horticulture, said researchers are using CRISPR to alter the genes of citrus to make it more resistant to citrus greening disease.
Stauderman said UF scientists are using CRISPR to modify the genetic makeup of orange trees to enable the trees to better fend off the citrus greening bacteria.
As research continues, Stauderman said, teams at UF are continuing to develop as many new tactics as possible to combat the citrus-destroying bacteria.
They know citrus is important to people.
“We want people to have vitamin C, which is great for all kinds of illnesses and viruses,” Stauderman said. “Just know, we’re working on it.”
As the UF teams develop new oranges that show resistance to the bacteria, they need various people to test them in the field. One of them is West Volusia grower Steve Crump, owner of Vo-LaSalle Farms in DeLeon Springs.
Crump grows fruit for “you pick,” where patrons can visit the grove and pick their own fruit. He also grows juice oranges and makes orange juice.
Crump said he’s excited to be on the front lines of the continuing battle against citrus greening, even if it seems like an uphill battle.
“I think it’s optimism on my part, or foolishness,” Crump said. “I’m not sure which one I’m trying for.”
He has received new oranges from UF, including 100 plants that are a part of a field trial. These plants will be checked on by UF scientists as they grow, to see whether their genetic resistance to citrus greening is field-ready for commercial purposes.
Crump still has to keep his business going, though. Crump said he has had to adapt and learn.
“I’ve planted trees inside a screen house structure to prevent them from the insect that spreads the greening disease, and those are doing very well,” he told The Beacon.
Crump recognized that such structures are cost-prohibitive for some, but he hopes that his investments will return once the trees produce fruit.
Crump is optimistic that this season will be fruitful. In some ways, he said, COVID-19 has helped.
At the start of the pandemic, he said, new customers were interested in healthy produce and a source of vitamin C.
“At this point, the COVID-19 sales spike brought a lot of new customers to me, so my sales are up, because a lot of them came back as repeat business,” Crump said. “My customers aren’t saying, ‘I’m buying your oranges because I’m worried about COVID,’ but they are coming because they learned about us during the shutdown when they were looking for healthy food.”
The citrus industry once occupied thousands of acres across Volusia County, but now only uses about 652, according to Volusia County Assistant Appraiser Keith Stewart.
Everyone from big fruit producers to small family groves are fighting to overcome citrus greening.
Marshall Groves owner Richard Marshall said he is cautiously optimistic about this season, but still worried that citrus greening could come back and wipe out his crop.
“It’s just like you in your house,” he said. “If you have hurricane shutters, you keep them handy if you have to. I always stay, more or less, in a state of anticipation, or readiness.”
While a greening-resistant crop could inject some juice into the stagnating Florida industry, Stauderman said she is unsure it will ever reach the size it once was.
She encouraged readers to go out and get some local citrus. It may not be a miracle cure, but it’s good for you, and it’s hard to beat the taste of a Florida orange, she said.
Citrus greening disease — the infectious bacteria also known as Huanglongbing, or HLB — first arrived in Florida in 2005, and reached Volusia County in 2007, according to the Florida Department of Citrus.
While some groves continue to fight through the epidemic, some were completely devastated.
Jim Gordon’s parents owned and operated Gordon’s Groves in DeLand. He told The Beacon his parents bought the grove in 1963, and in the coming decades it survived numerous hard freezes.
“The freezes of ‘83 and ‘85 wiped everything out. They replanted again, about 1,000 trees,” Gordon said of his parents. “He [his father] planted the best he could, worked hard at it, and each freeze didn’t defeat him. We just replanted.”
Then citrus greening hit Gordon’s Grove hard.
Jim Gordon’s mother, Frances Gordon, said the family began to notice signs of the bacteria on tree branches, one by one.
“We noticed it in all the trees,” she said.
As oranges ripen, they turn from a deep green to the classic, picturesque Florida orange from their cap down. Fruit infected with the citrus greening bacteria turns green from the bottom up, often looks lopsided and small, and has a sour taste.
In 2017, with so many of their trees infected, Gordon’s Grove participated in a state Agriculture Department program that bulldozed the grove, burning the remains to prevent the possible spread of greening bacteria.
Jim Gordon’s father, James Hugh Gordon, died later that year. With jobs of their own and not enough free time to consider re-entering the citrus business, Jim Gordon and his mother put their orange days behind.
Jim Gordon said he enjoyed growing up surrounded by the orange groves, and he and his mother agreed the experience was great.
“I always enjoyed the fruit,” he said. “Of course, it kept us busy; after school, on weekends, and through the summer, we worked to keep it going.”
“We met some friends from all over the country, and not just here, but in Canada,” Frances Gordon said. “It was a wonderful community. People worked together.”
While they are not part of the citrus business anymore, Frances Gordon said it makes her happy to see others carrying the mantle, even through tough times.
“It’s good to see others try to come back,” she said. “Florida is the citrus state, and we aren’t going to let anyone take it.”
— Noah Hertz