Growing Citrus in the HLB Era

HLBBy Jim Gravley

The entire citrus industry has changed since the arrival of HLB (citrus greening). To ensure success and produce a quality product, the grower must adapt and truly understand the issues brought on from the infection of HLB. The disease was officially identified in 2005 in South Florida, and we are still fighting to save this great industry.

HLB

Gravley

HLB-infected citrus trees can still produce quality fruit if the grower is willing to adapt and commit to enhanced production methods. Every grove is different pertaining to location, soil type and overall infrastructure. To be profitable, HLB-infected groves demand constant attention. Growing citrus with HLB is working, but the grower must be willing to change production methods.

The ability to keep trees out of stress resulting from nutritional deficiencies, drought and standing water (flatwoods) is crucial to staying productive. Utilizing the latest science while incorporating new production methods is a very important step to stay in business. The citrus industry has encountered many obstacles throughout time and is very resilient when it comes to overcoming and adapting. Citrus greening will not destroy the industry if we can sustain it until a cure or HLB-resistant variety and rootstock is found.

As a grower/owner with acreage located in Glades and Hendry counties (Gulf region), I would like to share some of the strategies implemented by Old Florida Citrus. HLB amplifies common stresses and overall issues citrus is confronted with every season. But a proactive grower who is involved in day-to-day operations gives a company a fighting chance to produce a viable crop.

Florida orange production has suffered a substantial decline, from more than 240 million boxes to just 68.7 million boxes in the 2016–17 season. Lower production numbers, including trees lost to HLB, have many growers cutting their budgets to make up for losses. The key to our success has been the ability to make changes to our programs on an as-needed basis. The damage to the industry and the cost per acre to produce citrus has many growers changing directions. As a citrus grower, I have a few suggestions to share with the industry:

  • Knowledge of area is key. This includes soil types, wet and dry areas, and drainage capabilities.
  • Know the irrigation performance and output for each block. Have the ability to inject a nutritional program at each irrigation pump valve.
  • Keep your boots on the ground. Ride and walk blocks of citrus to get an understanding of what is working where and the efficacy of your current program. Citrus groves always have an area that just thrives, regardless of the program implemented. Use these areas to your advantage during budget cuts and use funds in areas needed. The importance of walking groves and looking at trees is priceless.
  • Utilize your local Extension or research center to help with leaf and soil samples to ensure optimal production pertaining to nutrients and amendments applied throughout the grove.
  • Stay connected with fellow growers to exchange information. This includes the use of citrus health management areas to help combat the HLB vector.
  • Many growers do not have the ability or the budget to spray 12 times per season. Changing modes of action, awareness of tree flushing periods and use of dormant sprays are crucial to keep psyllid populations and the resistance factor to a minimum. Protecting new flush is very important to tree health and production. Utilize border sprays to help with material and application costs.
  • Resetting a grove is a long-term commitment. Select the proper scion and rootstock to adapt to the soil type and location. There are many new varieties available. Study your needs and area of interest before contracting young trees. The dedication and study conducted by entities within the industry has produced varieties tolerant to greening.
  • An irrigation management schedule is the key to success. Test water quality and keep the irrigation system operating throughout all blocks. The use of drip or micro-jet systems is considered a stabilizer during lack of rain. It is very difficult to catch back up on water needs when systems are not working properly.
  • Be very selective when implementing a nutritional program. As a grower, the involvement and comprehension of chemistry is vital when selecting a nutritional program. The higher rates of micronutrients are helping trees uptake other key nutritionals. Do your homework when choosing your program. Understanding the chemistry of your program should be a top priority.
  • Slowing down the irrigation water schedule from the wet season to the dry season has helped our groves tremendously. This helps trees avoid the extra stress created by too much or too little water intake.

By using the latest science and production methods to ensure our trees produce and pay, I am very confident in the ability to grow citrus during the HLB era. Old Florida Citrus will continue to purchase and develop citrus groves. Success and growth within the citrus industry now depends on science, hands-on production and absolute timing for applications of implemented programs.

Hurricane recovery

The citrus industry suffered extensive damage in September from Hurricane Irma, with the Gulf region taking the greatest hit. The after-storm procedures of pushing water out of groves and using hedgers to clear rows of downed trees was top priority. The ability to operate sprayers and other grove equipment immediately after the storm raised the success rate of saving every tree possible. Growers should never depend solely on crop insurance. Proven production methods, including the timing of post-storm procedures, will aid to protect grove investments.

Jim Gravley is grove manager and principal at Old Florida Citrus in Fort Myers, Florida.

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