SARASOTA, Fla. (AP) — Citrus growers are starting out the new decade in what many of them view as their final fight for survival.
The threat from so-called citrus greening — also called Huanglongbing or yellow dragon disease — is so great that growers, who by nature grouse at any levy on their fruit, have voted to further tax themselves to pay for the international last stand against the tree killer.
Coupled with money from a previous tax on each box of citrus produced, $10 million per year will be spent on nearly 100 research projects conducted by scientists from Florida, California, Brazil and Spain.
Joe Davis Jr., a former president of Florida's Natural Growers and former chairman of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, sees greening as the biggest game-changer since "Spanish explorers brought citrus to Florida."
"Greening is a disease that could take out the whole Florida citrus industry," the 58-year-old Davis said. "It is a disease so serious that production could be driven so low, so quickly, we could hit tipping point where we could no longer be a reliable source for orange juice."
The last decade already has been a time like no other for Florida's citrus farmers.
Never before has the state's seminal industry — one that defined Florida long before Disney World or its discovery by silver-haired snowbirds — been beset by so many pressures: hurricanes, diseases, pests, development and foreign competition.
The starkest indicator is the size of the industry: down to 568,814 acres from more than 1 million at the peak in 1970.
Greening is only the most recent threat, but it has rapidly dawned on growers that it could be the last if they do not find a way to effectively combat it.
The insect-borne disease starts as a yellowing of veins and tissues in a leaf, but it progressively kills twigs, branches, the trunk and even root system of citrus trees. Infected trees have stunted growth and produce small, irregularly shaped fruit with a thick, pale peel that remains green at the bottom.
The fruit is bitter.
Greening has becomes endemic in all of Florida's citrus-producing counties, though it is worst in the areas surrounding Lake Okeechobee.
Some growers are "pushing and burning" trees infected with greening in hopes it will not spread to 20 percent of a grove, the tipping point at which the profit margin evaporates, Davis said.
Others are learning to live with the diseased trees and spending millions in addition nutritional sprays to keep them productive for as long as possible.
A full 90 percent of the nearly 100 science experiments paid for by citrus growers deal with greening and with finding a way to stop the seven-year death spiral for a tree.
The carrier for the disease — the Asian citrus psyllid — also has shown up in Texas and California. Though citrus groves in those two states are so far clear of the disease, conventional wisdom says that it is just a matter of time.
Mexican citrus farmers already are dealing with greening as are those in South Africa, Brazil and other citrus-producing countries worldwide.
The nonprofit Citrus Research and Development Foundation has been formed to oversee the science projects, the remaining 10 percent of which will examine ways to handle citrus canker, another disease now endemic in the U.S. citrus belt.
Greening has cost Davis and his father Joe Davis Sr. — an 86-year-old grower who might represent one of the last citrus barons Florida may ever produce — a fortune.
"I'd imagine we personally have spent more than $1 million so far in extra care-taking because of greening," the elder Davis said. "It's a bunch of money."
Recently, the Davises decided to try both approaches to combat greening — pushing and burning in groves with little infection or spraying extra nutrition on trees where greening has infected more than 5 percent of the trees.
"From where I sit this morning I think we're probably going to have to learn to live with it," the senior Davis said during a recent interview. "It will raise the cost of production and lower that production — in other words we will get less while spending more money."
In the long term, without a scientific breakthrough from the dozens of research projects during the next six years, greening will be far worse than maladies that growers had previously considered doomsday attackers: canker and the Mediterranean fruit fly.
"Canker and the Medfly were 'economic diseases' that drove up costs and hurt production a little bit," the elder Davis said. "This is much different."
Despite the odds, there are still Floridians attracted to the time-honored citrus their families have carried on for decades.
One of the newest entries is Justin Sorrells, now a third-generation grower.
Sorrells' grandfather and his three brothers moved to Florida from Atlanta to open the Sorrells Bros. Packing Co. in Arcadia during the 1940s and sent fresh tangerines and oranges to northern markets.
As their success grew, the brothers also started buying groves. The family's holdings today number about 650,000 trees.
The recent graduate from Florida Southern College has gotten rapid firsthand knowledge of the threats to his industry.
Sorrells, who worked in the industry while earning his bachelor's degree in citrus, was on the job for little more than a year when Hurricane Charley blew through the family's 5,000 acres of groves in DeSoto, Hardee and Polk counties.
"Walking out into an orange grove you've spent an entire year on — and in two hours it's all on the ground — is an awesome sight," Sorrells said. "And not in a good way."
The Sorrells lost millions to the storm.
Their 29-year-old scion's education continued during the 2007-08 season, when a rebound from the spate of hurricanes after Charley fizzled as overproduction dropped box prices below what it cost to fill them.
Then another killer — freezing cold — hit the Sorrells family groves in early February. They lost 30,000 trees.
Replacements for frozen trees can be replanted. Those blown over by hurricanes can be righted. But whole groves stricken with yellow dragon present a whole new level of destruction.
"It is bad," Sorrells said. "We are all praying that greening does not take us all out."
"There is a lot of money going into research to find a solution before we lose the battle and lose the war," he said. "I don't think you can find a citrus grower who isn't scared about greening and is using every precaution we can think of to protect the infrastructure."
Sorrells hopes to be married someday. He also has a vision of a fourth-generation of Sorrells taking over the family farm.
So for now, he will fight.
"No matter how bad something is, no matter how bleak it looks, you have to keep moving forward," he said. "You can't just say, 'That's it.'"