Citrus growers on their own in fight on canker

Published: Friday, January 13, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 12, 2006 at 11:20 p.m.
ORLANDO - The federal government's withdrawal of financial support for citrus canker eradication means Florida growers might have to rely on costly chemicals and wind breaks to save the $9 billion industry, researchers say.
"This will be the order of the day for the near future," Dr. Jim Graham, professor of soil microbiology at the University of Florida's Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred, said Thursday.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture said Wednesday it would no longer help pay for the 10-year-old program, which required the removal of every citrus tree within 1,900 feet of one infected with canker.
The policy riled homeowners, many with pending lawsuits against the state, who watched workers cut down healthy trees in their back yards to prevent the spread of canker to commercial groves. In exchange, they were given $100 vouchers to Wal-Mart for the first tree killed and $55 for each additional one.
The disease - caused by bacteria that can be transferred by birds, humans and wind - inflicts blemishes and citrus production, but is harmless to humans.
The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services insists the eradication program would've been successful - perhaps within months - if two nasty hurricane seasons hadn't blown it further around the state.
Since it did, the Legislature must soon rewrite its canker policy, and state and federal agriculture officials must sooner decide what it should be.
Graham, who studies canker, and colleagues are planning at least four meetings with growers and production managers around the state to help them adapt.
"We're kind of mounting a blitz of information," he said, much of it learned from South American countries that have battled canker without a broad eradication program.
Graham said growers have to focus on decontaminating equipment and personnel that travel from one grove to another- or dedicating certain workers to certain groves.
Further, he said, they can apply additional coats of a copper spray already used to control fungal diseases - particularly on young plants.
"Of course the cost of that spray is going to be a consideration," Graham said, adding that it could run an additional $200 an acre per year.
Graham said growers should also consider which varieties are most susceptible to infection. Grapefruits, for example, are much more likely to contract it than Valencia oranges.
Graham said natural windbreaks with plants 20-40 feet high would help prevent canker spread, but creating them could be a long and costly process. He said cane-type grass could be quickly grown up to 10 feet around short trees, but it would take several years to raise a barrier around long-lived trees.
Even then, he said, the solution isn't ideal.
"They're going to take nutrients and water, they're going to create shade that will reduce citrus production," Graham said. "So it's going to take some time, I think, before they'll be accepted and established by the growers."
Abandoning the eradication policy may vindicate homeowners who have brought still-pending legal challenges against the state over compensation for lost trees, and argued it should never have cut them down to begin with.
"The government position is absurd, and has been from the beginning," said Brian Patchen, a Miami Beach attorney who sued after his six citrus trees were destroyed. "There was no way citrus canker could be truly eliminated to begin with given the demographics of Florida."
Florida Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Liz Compton insisted the program was successful, and said its end doesn't signal otherwise.
"To those who say, 'Did I lose my tree for nothing?' The answer is no," she said. "The picture changed. The face of this changed because of the hurricanes."

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