Citrus greening devastates Florida's iconic crop

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It only took a small insect to wipe out nearly half of the 500 young citrus trees at Citrus Place in Terra Ceia over the course of a few years.

Like most farmers across the state of Florida, Sidney Tillett said his crops are suffering from a bacterial infection known as citrus greening.

"The production of the diseased tree is down. The quality of the fruit is down. The care of the tree is up," Tillett explained.

Citrus greening has spread to all 32 citrus producing counties in Florida. Once a tiny invasive insect called a psyllid starts eating at a citrus tree, it spreads the bacteria, causing the tree to die within two to three years.

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"The oranges are small. The tree is very thin. The leaves are normally smaller," explained Tillett, who added that oranges from infected trees typically do not have a pleasant taste to most people.

Infected trees produce less oranges for consumption. The decrease in oranges is what led the Ben Hill Griffin Packing House in Frostproof to shutdown. The company announced it plans to stop operations later this month.

Officials said 40 employees who work at the packing house will be moved to other jobs within the company.

"It's really a continuation of what we're facing as an industry. Our production has dropped dramatically over the past 10-12 years, so if there's not enough fruit to feed the packing houses, then this is a natural step," said Andrew Meadows, of Florida Citrus Mutual, in reaction to Griffin's closing.

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Tillett said the slower production has led him to buy oranges from another farm in Ft. Myers in order to continue juicing his usual 3,000 pounds of oranges twice a week for customers at the Citrus Place store.

He said he has tried different antibiotics and nutrients to try to restore the health of his trees infected by citrus greening. He's currently testing a strategy to cut off the dead portion of the trees and allow it to regrow for a few years, in hopes that the tree will heal itself.

Tillett said he saw some success with the method after cutting one of his trees, but while it grew back fuller, he stills sees some signs of infection.

"I'm just trying to keep the trees as healthy as I can," said Tillett.

But the citrus industry is not going down without a fight. Farmers and scientists are working together to find a cure in order to make sure Florida's iconic industry does not die off.

"We have a massive research effort going on now. Growers have spent millions of dollars. The federal and state government have also invested money in our industry, so we're developing tools," said Meadows.