Demand for Florida OJ surged when coronavirus arrived in the U.S. after years of being overlooked by consumers. Credit: Diane Miller, Getty Images
Citrus greening, a disease ravaging citrus groves in central and south Florida, has been detected for the first time in north Florida, according to agriculture researchers.
A tree confirmed to be infected with the disease was discovered in late November in a Leon County homeowner’s backyard, according to the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
Discovery of the disease is a foreboding sign for people in north Florida and south Georgia trying to grow oranges clear of the infected groves to the south.
Citrus greening is a bacterial disease carried and spread by an Asian insect that kills both fruit and trees, dealing Florida’s signature crop a devastating blow. Researchers and citrus growers hoping to at least slow widespread crop losses are striving to develop insecticides, treatments, and resistant strains of trees, according to the Florida Department of Citrus.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently forecast that Florida growers would produce 47 million boxes of oranges this season, down 11 percent from last season, and 3.8 million boxes of grapefruit — a fraction of the 244 million boxes Florida’s citrus groves produced 25 years ago.
Researchers and growers attribute the steep decline to citrus greening, destructive hurricanes and other severe weather exacerbated by climate change, and overseas competition, especially from Brazil.
Much of Florida citrus production now aims for specialty markets such as organic, craft juices, and specialty crops such as tangerines.
Florida Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Commissioner Nikki Fried has requested $15.6 million in the 2022-23 state budget to support the struggling industry with disease management, crop research, and marketing assistance.
Sales of Florida citrus temporarily surged early in the COVID-19 pandemic as consumers recalled the immunity-boosting properties of Vitamin-C-rich orange juice. Previously, sales of citrus juices declined as non-juice energy drinks grew in popularity.
Citrus greening, found in groves around the world, broke out in south Florida in 2005 and spread throughout the state’s citrus zones, slashing production by roughly three-quarters.
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