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Citrus Land Drop-Off Continues Across Florida

Marie Coleman

Coming off their worst harvest in five decades, citrus growers in Florida have fewer acres to work with as they struggle to maintain the state's signature crop against an incurable bacterial disease.

The citrus industry lost 4 percent of its grove land, 21,275 acres, over the past year, according to a survey released Monday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The industry, now with less than half a million acres for production, has for years had to confront construction and population growth. Since 2005, the industry has also worked to fend off the ravages of citrus greening disease, which is deadly to the crop and has infected nearly all of Florida's commercial citrus groves.

The release Monday from the USDA accompanying the survey doesn't outline the cause for the overall decrease in acreage, but citrus leaders in Florida point to greening.

"The long-term future of Florida citrus, as well as the thousands of jobs and rural communities it supports, entirely depends on a breakthrough in the search for a solution to the existential threat that is greening," Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said in a statement Tuesday.

Production is down about two-thirds since its peak, "mostly" due to greening, said Andrew Meadows, a spokesman for Florida Citrus Mutual, an industry group based in Lakeland.

The USDA's Annual Commercial Citrus Tree Inventory comes as growers prepare for the 2016-2017 season after producing just enough oranges in the prior harvest to fill 81.5 million 90-pound boxes. The harvest was almost 16 percent below the 2014-2015 season's nearly five-decade-low of 96.8 million boxes.

The survey shows the state recorded new tree plantings that totaled 10,090 acres. However, of the 27 counties surveyed by the federal agency, all but three — Hendry, DeSoto and Charlotte --- lost acreage in the past year.

Hendry, which leads the state with 10 million citrus trees, had the highest growth in acres, adding 512 acres and 275,200 trees from year to year.

Meanwhile, Polk County, which this year lost its two-decade hold as the largest citrus producer in the state, reported the largest decrease in acreage, down 4,033 acres in the past year.

Both oranges and grapefruit, which make up the bulk of the state's citrus crop, were down 16 percent in the 2015-2016 growing season from the prior harvest.

Tangerines were down 38 percent in the same time and tangelos were off 41 percent.

The top five citrus-producing counties are now Hendry, De Soto, Polk, Highlands and Hardee, which collectively account for 61 percent of the state's production, according to the USDA survey.

Oranges constitute 87 percent of the citrus grown in the state, followed by grapefruit at 11 percent. Tangerines and tangelos represent the remaining two percent.

The first forecast for the next growing season is due from the USDA in one month, but early indicators have not been positive.

The state budget that went into effect July 1 includes $8 million to help fight citrus greening and $14.7 million for a citrus health response program within the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

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