Jack Payne, head of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS), looks at the past, present and future of Florida citrus. He has been in the role of senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources since 2010 and is slated to retire on July 1.
“Of course, citrus is the iconic industry in Florida,” which has more than 300 other crops, Payne says. When he came to UF/IFAS in 2010, five years after HLB was discovered in Florida, “it was all hands on deck trying to find a cure,” he says. “We still don’t have a cure, although we are able, from what we’ve learned, to keep people in business and keep growing citrus.”
“A lot of the smaller growers have gone out of business,” Payne notes. He points out that he has heard production costs pre-HLB were $700 to $800 per acre, and are now about $2,200 to $2,400 per acre. The price growers get for their fruit hasn’t gone up to match the production costs, “so a lot of the smaller growers have simply given up.” Many larger growers have bought the smaller growers’ groves, he says.
“I don’t want people to think we haven’t been successful” because no cure has been found for HLB, Payne says. He says researchers and growers have learned to keep trees productive longer, and the industry keeps getting better varieties. Some of those varieties are staying productive longer in the face of HLB, he adds.
In addition to working on improving citrus, UF/IFAS is doing much work on alternative crops. Payne says those include hops, peaches, pomegranates and olives.
Looking 10 years into the future, Payne says, “I really think the solution (to HLB) will probably be in gene editing … But in the meantime, with our continuing, escalating success with new varieties, Florida will be in the citrus business for decades to come. I just think it will be a smaller industry than it has been.”
This interview with Payne is featured in the April All In For Citrus podcast, a joint project of UF/IFAS and AgNet Media. Listen to the full podcast here.
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