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Canker Program Has Citrus Nurseries Near 'Collapse'

A Florida citrus industry already punished by disease and natural disaster could be facing another big problem in a few years: no young trees to replace the ones that have been lost.

A Florida citrus industry already punished by disease and natural disaster could be facing another big problem in a few years: no young trees to replace the ones that have been lost.

As of now, 65 percent of the nursery trees destined for commercial groves have been wiped out by the state's citrus canker eradication program, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture's Division of Plant Industry.

"The private citrus nursery industry is close to collapsing, in my opinion," said Chuck Reed, owner of Reed Bros. Citrus in Dundee. "I am in a quarantine area, which means I can't move anything in or out of my nursery for two years.... You can't afford to maintain the trees for two years. We turned the water off and let the trees die."

Reed, who estimates his loss at $1.5 million, believes that the supply of nursery trees for groves, now at less than 1 million, will be depleted by spring.

"I predict there will be a time frame of several years that there will not be any nursery trees available for commercial groves," he said. "That will affect their bottom line drastically." Citrus for residential back yards also will be affected, Reed said.

"We supply trees to nurseries that step them up in the bigger pots and sell them to homeowners," he said. "There will be a serious impact on availability for anyone in Florida to get citrus trees."

Since it was first discovered in 1995, citrus canker has been the focus of a desperate fight by state and federal officials and the industry. The bacterial disease and the protocol used to fight it are expected to claim more than 10 million commercial citrus trees once all the exposed trees are removed, state figures show.

The bacterial disease causes raised corky lesions on fruit, stems and leaves, reducing fruit quality and quantity.

Nurseries also are threatened by citrus greening, also known by its Chinese name of huanglongbing. Greening is lethal to citrus trees, and is spread by an insect called the Asian citrus psyllid, discovered for the first time in Florida back in 1998.

Although greening is deadlier to trees than canker, it also spreads more slowly, experts say, so for now the emphasis is on canker eradication.

Several drastic options are under consideration by the recently formed Florida Citrus Plant Protection Committee, which consists of grove and nursery owners and scientists.

One idea is to move all the state's citrus nurseries from the citrus belt to North Florida, where heatable greenhouses would be built. Another is to allow young trees to be grown in secure greenhouses within the citrus-producing counties.

A third idea is for the state to buy out the citrus nurseries.

"The problem is, as this less-than-a-million nursery trees gets dwindled down, and no one is planting trees in nurseries because they are afraid to, it will affect the citrus industry even more," said committee member Mark DuBois, operations manager at Callery-Judge Grove near Loxahatchee. "The whole canker/greening thing is attacking us on all fronts, not just the grove front."

Roland Dilley, owner of what was the state's largest citrus nursery, Roland Dilley & Son Inc. in Avon Park, was forced to destroy 1.5 million young trees in October after canker was found at the Ben Hill Griffin Inc. nursery across the street. Dilley's trees, worth an estimated $9.4 million, were within 1,900 feet of the canker find, targeting them as trees exposed to canker.

Instead of the usual $200,000 a month in sales, receipts are now zero, Dilley said. With no money coming in to pay bills, he's taken out a $1.2 million bank loan and signed a contract to sell the 54 acres for $2.2 million. His family's future in the business is in limbo, and he figures it would take $4 million to start over again in North Florida.

"You are not going to be able to just put up a little greenhouse. It will have to be bug-proof. They don't have any idea what it costs," Dilley said. "Who wants to go up there, spend that kind of money and then in six months they come in and say, 'Oh, you've got greening?' " Florida Deputy Agriculture Commissioner Craig Meyer said the citrus nursery industry will have to move out of the citrus belt in order to survive.

The state plans to move state-owned certified disease-free varieties of citrus source trees it wants to protect from Winter Haven to a small greenhouse under construction on the grounds of a state forestry center in Chiefland, west of Gainesville, Meyer said.

It's the state's first citrus greenhouse in a non-citrus area, and Meyer said the agriculture department plans to request state money to move the entire budwood operation there. Budwood is a portion of a stem or branch used to propagate new trees.

Mike Kesinger, chief of the state's bureau of budwood registration in Winter Haven, said moving the source trees, expected to be made by January, has become more urgent since Hurricane Wilma blew the roof off a state greenhouse in Immokalee, and a facility in Dundee was destroyed because of canker in a nearby grove.

"Growers are fearful of taking trees from nurseries. They don't want to take a risk," Kesinger said. "Down the road, there is going to be a shortage of nursery trees for groves. Nurserymen have no cash flow. They are dying a slow death."

Making the likelihood of destroyed nurseries going back into the business remote is the fact that unlike citrus trees that produce fruit, the nursery trees are not eligible for federal canker compensation. Meyer said the U.S. Department of Agriculture is working on a formula for nursery compensation, but no money has been allocated yet.

"We are dead in the water until we find out what the state is going to do," Reed said. "They may require us to move. If they require us to move, we don't know what type of structures to build.

"There's no compensation for nurseries that lose their trees.... I had to lay people off and pay for the destruction myself," he said. "Do you think my banker is going to loan me money to go somewhere and start another nursery?"

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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

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