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'Greening' Squeezes Florida's Citrus Industry

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

While more people move to Florida, the centerpiece of its economy, the state's $9 billion citrus industry, is in crisis. The reason is a disease called citrus greening. It's wreaked havoc in other parts of the globe, like Asia and Brazil. Now the insect-borne disease is spreading in the United States. And no state has been harder hit than Florida, which is in the midst of the orange harvest. Amy Green of member station WMFE in Orlando went to a citrus grove to see for herself.

KATHERINE KIRKLAND: Now, this tangerine is hard to peel, and it's full of seeds, but it's got a good taste.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: That's all right.

KIRKLAND: OK?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: That's right. I love tangerines.

AMY GREEN, BYLINE: From an old wooden stand, Katherine Kirkland of Marshall Groves has chatted up customers and sold oranges on the same corner for 20 years. The grove is in a bucolic part of DeLand, an hours' drive outside of Orlando. Seven acres of citrus trees are laden with juicy oranges, tangerines and grapefruit, except in one patch. Dick Marshall grew up on the grove and inherited it from his father, who bought it in 1948.

DICK MARSHALL: These are grapefruit trees - 1, 2, 3. Do they look healthy and thriving to you? They look boney, and tiny, little fruit, which will never amount to anything.

GREEN: The trees infected with greening are half the size of the others.

TOM JERKINS: The situation in Florida is dire.

GREEN: Tom Jerkins is a Florida citrus grower and chairman of the USDA's newly-created Citrus Disease Subcommittee.

JERKINS: One example would be a little over 10 years ago, we produced nearly 300 million boxes of fruit. Today we're producing about 125 million. All of Florida is infected with disease, basically.

GREEN: Unchecked, the disease eventually could wipe out Florida's iconic crop. Oranges are as much a part of the state's identity as beaches or amusement parks, and have been for decades.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Quench your thirst with health. Quench your thirst with delicious, fresh, frozen orange juice from Florida.

GREEN: Florida alone is second behind Brazil in orange production for juice. The industry supports 76,000 jobs in Florida and is the backbone of communities in the state's heartland.

Greening first appeared here in 2006. It's spread by a tiny insect called a psyllid. Infected trees bear fruit that's green, bitter and usable for sale. Most die within a few years. Again, Tom Jerkins.

JERKINS: It's a disease that gets into the vascular system of the tree and just weakens, just weakens it so it limits its production, it's productivity and ultimately will - they'll kind of kill it, but mostly just makes it extremely weak.

GREEN: The disease couldn't have come at a worse time. The industry also faces growing competition from sports drinks and bottled water and reduced demand from consumers more concerned about carbs than vitamins in orange juice. Florida is the epicenter for the disease, but it's appearing in Texas and California. The industry urgently is searching for a remedy. At Marshall Groves, Dick's hopes rest on a wasp. He says researchers have discovered the wasp preys on the insect spreading the disease. In the meantime, he sprays his trees with nutrients like fish oil. He removes the trees that die.

MARSHALL: About five years ago, we were picking on the average 700 boxes per acre. Now we're getting 200.

GREEN: I ask how difficult it's been. In response, he asks me, do you want to see a grown man cry? For NPR News, I am Amy Green in Orlando. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.