Lake Wales, Fla. • Citrus has always been synonymous with Florida.
The orange adorns the state license plate. The University of Florida’s famed football stadium was named after an orange magnate. There is even a county called Citrus.
Throughout the decades, the citrus industry has always stood strong — through freezes, hurricanes and rampant development.
But now the $9 billion industry is facing its biggest threat yet, putting at risk the state’s economy but also its very identity. Blame a mottled brown bug no bigger than a pencil eraser that carries a lethal disease.
In China, where the problem was first discovered, it’s called huanglongbing. Translation: "the yellow dragon disease." In Florida, it’s known simply as "greening."
It arrived here via an invasive bug called the Asian Citrus Psyllid, which carries bacteria that are left behind when the psyllid feeds on a citrus tree’s leaves. The tree continues to produce useable fruit, but eventually disease clogs the vascular system. Fruit falls, and the tree slowly dies.
The psyllid isn’t native to Florida, but it is believed to have arrived from someone who perhaps unknowingly brought a slip of a tree from Asia. Some think it then spread on the winds of hurricanes a decade ago. There is no cure for greening, and no country has ever successfully eradicated it.
All of that has Florida’s growers in a frenzy to find a way to stop it.
"It feels like you’re in a war," said Ellis Hunt Jr., whose family owns 5,000-plus acres of orange groves and is part of the co-op that contributes to Florida’s Natural, the third-largest juice brand in the country.
Hunt estimates he’s spending some $2,000 an acre on production costs, a 100 percent increase from 10 years ago. Much of that goes toward nutrients and spraying to try to control the psyllids. The thought of the demise of his farm — of Florida citrus — gnaws at him.
"We can’t let this thing go down on our watch," he said.
Nearly all of the state’s citrus groves are affected in varying degrees by greening disease, and researchers, growers and experts agree that the crisis has already started to compromise Florida’s prominence as a citrus-growing region.
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