NORTH FORT MYERS – Citrus greening remains the most serious threat to Florida's orange groves, says a top federal agricultural official.
It's enough of a concern that it prompted Rebecca Blue, undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to visit Southwest Florida this week to attend the Citrus Expo at the Lee County Civic Center.
The trade show floor was teeming with exhibitors selling sprays, nutrients and providing educational material for the fight against greening, also known as Huanglongbing or HLB. The disease destroys the appearance, production and economic value of citrus trees and the taste of the fruit and juice.
It has no cure, was first found in Florida in 2005 in Miami-Dade County and is also prevalent in Collier and Lee.
In addition to the expo, Blue also visited Southwest Florida groves to get a firsthand look at the problem.
"The growers get it. They know that agriculture is a tough business," Blue said. "But they're in it because they love it. We're all working towards the common goal of halting the spread of citrus diseases, and that's why collaboration and research are so critical.
"The growers I visited with are willing to see it out until we get those big breakthroughs."
With millions of dollars spent on research, a cure remains elusive. Still, Blue says the research has led to innovative ideas that are slowing the spread of the disease. As an example, she pointed to nutrient management, which supplies nutrients to the tree through a foliar application, so they can still produce fruit even if trees get the disease.
Greening is commonly caused by Asian citrus psyllids, an insect that, once infected with the disease, carries it for the rest of its life and spreads it from tree to tree as it feeds.
"The most important mission we have at USDA is keeping American agriculture safe," Blue said. "(USDA) Secretary (Tom) Vilsack is very keen on research. He understands that is what is going to keep American agriculture moving forward."
Blue said other initiatives include educating the public about greening through the website saveourcitrus.org and helping growers with containment strategies.
"It's a $3 billion industry and 63 percent of the citrus produced in the U.S. comes from Florida and that's supporting 76,000 jobs. That's crucial to the economy," Blue said.
Florida has lost about 200,000 acres since 2005, part of which is caused by greening, but is also due to development, damage to groves from hurricanes, and other diseases like canker.
"One of the bigger challenges (of greening) is the latency period because an infected tree may not show symptoms of HLB for three years," Blue said. "It's very difficult to get ahead of a disease that has a three-year head start."
On July 18, legislation that would provide up to $30 million per year for five years for research to fight greening passed its first obstacle in the U.S. Senate when the Finance Committee voice-approved the bill sponsored by Sen. Bill Nelson. Senators will likely vote on the bill later this year.
"It's important to remind folks how important agriculture is," Blue said. "Two percent of Americans are farmers, but 100 percent of us eat. A lot of times we forget exactly where our orange juice is coming from."