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Bug continues to squeeze citrus industry

Mixon Fruit Farms begins to diversify with bamboo as citrus industry fails.

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  • | 6:00 a.m. October 5, 2016
Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam, right,  speaks with Don Goudy, of Veritas! Pest Management, who attended a presentation by Putnam Sept. 27, at the Polo Grill and Bar.
Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam, right, speaks with Don Goudy, of Veritas! Pest Management, who attended a presentation by Putnam Sept. 27, at the Polo Grill and Bar.
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On 6 acres at Mixon Fruit Farms in Bradenton, a bulldozer clanks and clangs as it knocks over rows of citrus trees.

Three areas within the 50-acre grove, in particular, have become virtually unproductive because of a disease known as citrus greening.

Grove owners Dean and Janet Mixon are taking a gamble on a new product offering — organic bamboo — rather than replanting citrus trees.

“We’ve lost most of our trees three times in the last 20 years,” Janet Mixon said. “We used to have trees in here from the 1800s. It’s very depressing.”

Citrus greening, a bacterial disease, is carried by an insect, a psyllid, that attacks young trees. Once infected, the trees' root systems do not fully develop or are stunted, restricting nutrient uptake within the tree and causing leaves to splotch and yellow and produce blemished, misshapen, low-juice fruit.

Whether a tree is infected is not evident until it is about 5 years old, after it has reached maturity.

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam, who spoke to business professionals Sept. 27 in Lakewood Ranch, said citrus greening is putting multigenerational growers out of business. The state is working on temporary solutions, such as two bactericides released in March.

“They are tools to buy us time,” Putnam said. “Having trees going back in the ground is how we are going to protect (the industry).”

U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan has pushed bipartisan legislation called the Emergency Citrus Disease Response Act to make it less costly for growers to replace trees damaged by citrus greening. Its success could determine whether citrus farmers like the Mixons decide to pursue non-citrus products.

The legislation would modify existing law to allow farmers to bring in outside investors to help pay for replanting costs.

The bill has passed the U.S. House of Representatives Sept. 21, but awaits Senate action.

“We really appreciate he is fighting for citrus,” Janet Mixon said.

The Mixons say their groves have operated at a loss for at least the past three years, as productivity of trees has decreased and the expense of maintaining the groves has increased. They’ve started purchasing some farmstand-worthy fruit — oranges without blemish — from inland growers who have not been as severely affected by greening.

SMR Farms LLC in Bradenton still has 910 acres of citrus groves. SMR Farms President Gary Bradshaw said the groves are still profitable, despite increases in production costs of about 25% in the past five years. He remembers when yields were up to 900 boxes of fruit per acre compared with about 300 per acre now.

“About 79% of the trees we’ve got are infected with greening,” he said. “That sounds like a lot, but we’re probably one of the lower amounts. We continue to deal with it. We’ve learned a lot.”

SMR Farms’ fruit all goes to juicing, so whether fruit looks blemished is not relevant. SMR does not have plans to replant diseased trees because of its long-range plans for residential development on its property. Bradshaw said its strategy — a calculated risk — is to make trees as healthy as possible and continue harvesting the groves.



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