Greening has devastated Florida citrus, but some growers are increasingly hopeful

As some economists question the viability of Florida’s iconic citrus industry, there are local growers who call themselves increasingly hopeful. Louis Schacht is one of them. CBS12 News caught up with Schacht as he sorted oranges and grapefruit in the small packing house next to his family’s gift fruit stand west of Vero Beach. Family-owned Schacht Groves has been in business since the 1950’s. Recent decades have not been kind to citrus, neither state-wide or on the Treasure Coast, home to world famous Indian River grapefruit.

“Obviously we’re still growing grapefruit,” he said. “It’s just a completely different industry at this point. The state crop has gone from 40 million boxes, down to four,” Schacht said. “Most industries would call that a collapse.”

A succession of pests and diseases have challenged the industry, but none quite like the latest scourge — citrus greening.

“This is the one story in Florida that I don’t feel has really been given enough due,” Schact said. “Because it’s a severe problem and greening, to me, over the last decade or so, is probably the largest negative impact in the state.”

Spread by a tiny insect, citrus greening often, but by no means always, keeps green fruit from ripening. Greening makes fruit remain tiny and become sour.

Since 2004, the number of citrus growers state-wide dropped from 7,000 to just over 2,000. It’s estimated 90 percent of the state’s groves are infected with the bacterium causing greening. It's little wonder some economists see the industry ceasing to exist.

Yet in spite of the almost unbelievable contraction, citrus, at $9 billion is still the state’s second biggest industry. Schacht said growers have had to adapt their cultivation practices.

“Trying to feed your tree nutritionally, consistently and often,” he said, acknowledging this costs more to do. He also said growers see promise in ongoing research at the state level. “To find something, whether it be a resistant roots stock, as an example.”

In the meantime, in spite of the obstacles, growers continue to harvest and sell a tasty product. “We can still make a go of it, but it’s just a much harder road,” Schacht said. “The cost to grow fruit has gone up pretty much exponentially.” But Schacht said among growers, he actually believes sentiment may have bottomed out. He sees more optimism these days. Schacht said the industry will likely never be as big as it once was, but he expects it to survive.

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