Citrus growers in Florida are facing some of the toughest challenges yet with their crops. Last year, the citrus industry’s crop was one of the smallest since World War II, due to a bacterial disease called citrus greening and an extremely rough hurricane season.
Citrus greening, also known as Huanglongbing (HLB), is a bacterial disease that affects orange trees and can ravage groves and nurseries. The disease can turn fruit green and misshapen and cause a bitter taste. No cure exists.
But officials are hopeful that a newly discovered Donaldson tree could offer a reprieve to citrus growers struggling with greening, according to Ben Rosson, the bureau chief of Florida’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
“(Citrus greening) has truly been the most devastating disease that we have had in our industry,” Rosson said. “And couple that with the hurricanes that we’ve had come through the last couple of years…that’s the reason why the crop is so low this year.”
Growers found the tree by chance while giving a tour of a farm in Groveland, located in central Florida. A citrus farmer noticed that the Donaldson tree was still producing fruit and acting differently than other trees in the grove.
“They did some fruit test to determine the Brix/acid ratio and determined, ‘Hey, it’s good fruit, is there something here?'” Rosson said. “This tree has been here over 30 years. It’s surviving. It’s holding on. It’s doing well.”
Officials also found that the Donaldson tree is continuing to produce fruit despite being infected by citrus greening.
“It’s still growing, it still has a good canopy on it. And the fruit is still good. It doesn’t have the fruit drop that a lot of our early varieties have now,” he said.
The hope is that the new tree will help rectify some of the problems seen in Florida’s most precious crop since 2006, when citrus greening was first found.
Rosson said around 200 million 90 pound boxes of oranges — the industry’s standard measurement — were harvested that year.
That’s compared to just over 41 million boxes in the 2021-2022 season, and a forecasted crop of 16.1 million boxes for the 2022-2023 season.
Hurricanes Ian and Nicole pummeled citrus groves during last year’s growing season, adding to an already weak crop.
Rosson says registered citrus nurseries have each received two Donaldson trees from the state, and are now working towards getting them out to other growers.