Citrus growers in Florida are facing some of their toughest challenges yet with their crops.
Last year, the citrus industry’s harvest was one of the smallest since World War II, thanks to a bacterial disease called citrus greening and an extremely harsh hurricane season.
Citrus greening, also known as Huanglongbing (HLB), is a bacterial disease that affects orange trees and can devastate groves and nurseries. The disease can turn fruit green and misshapen and cause a bitter taste. There is no cure.
But officials are hoping a newly discovered Donaldson tree could offer some breathing space for citrus growers struggling with greening, according to Ben Rosson, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services office chief.
“(Citrus greening) was really the most devastating disease that we’ve had in our industry,” Rosson said. “And coupled with the hurricanes we’ve been through for the past few years…that’s why the harvest is so low this year.”
Growers found the tree by accident while touring a farm in Groveland, central Florida. A citrus grower noticed that the Donaldson tree was still producing fruit and behaving differently than other trees in the grove.
“They did some fruit testing to determine the brix/acid ratio and they were like, ‘Hey, it’s a good fruit, is there anything?'” Rosson said. “This tree has been here for over 30 years. It’s surviving. It’s holding out. It’s doing well.”
Officials also found that the Donaldson tree continues to produce fruit despite being afflicted with citrus greens.
“It’s still growing, it still has a good canopy. And the fruit is still good. It doesn’t have the fruit drop that a lot of our early strains have now,” he said.
The hope is that the new tree will help fix some of the problems that have cropped up in Florida’s most valuable crop since 2006, when citrus greens were first discovered.
Rosson said around 200 million 90-pound cases of oranges – the industry standard size – were harvested this year.
That compares to just over 41 million cases in the 2021-2022 season and a forecast harvest of 16.1 million cases for the 2022-2023 season.
Hurricanes Ian and Nicole devastated citrus groves during last year’s growing season and contributed to an already weak harvest.
According to Rosson, registered citrus nurseries have each received two Donaldson trees from the state and are now working to pass them on to other growers.