Hurricanes, development, demographics, disease and other issues combined in recent decades to severely reduce citrus acreage and crops in Plaquemines Parish, which has the majority of Louisiana growers. According to Louisiana State University (LSU) AgCenter, the state has only 841 acres of citrus remaining.
Anna Timmerman, LSU AgCenter horticultural Extension agent, discussed the industry’s woes in the parish that she said has been the center of the Louisiana industry “for well over 200 years.”
“Hurricane Katrina (in 2005), followed by Hurricane Isaac in 2012, damaged most of the groves in Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes,” Timmerman reported. She added that Louisiana growers most recently lost an estimated 75 to 90 percent of their crops to Hurricane Zeta in 2020.
DEVELOPMENT, DEMOGRAPHICS AND DISEASE
“Many growers chose to not continue within the industry” after the hurricanes, Timmerman stated. “Suburban development, an aging farmer population, and disease pressures from the spread of citrus canker and greening has further decreased acreage significantly.”
Timmerman reported that an LSU AgCenter contact list that numbered about 600 Louisiana citrus growers prior to Hurricane Katrina now has 180. “However, many of our mailings come back ‘return to sender’ and we also hear back from a handful of former growers each year that they are no longer active in the industry,” she stated. “Our best current estimate is that there are fewer than 100 active growers in Plaquemines Parish. The number is likely closer to 50.”
“The aging grower population means that each year we lose growers as they retire or sell out,” Timmerman said. “Many of our growers are seniors and do not have heirs willing or able to take over the citrus groves.”
“Lower Plaquemines Parish is experiencing a rapid loss of land due to climate change and coastal erosion tied to the oil and gas industry, which has intensified land loss due in large part to canals shifting to open water,” Timmerman reported. “The levee system on the Mississippi has also cut off fresh deposits of sediment to the area, further exacerbating the problem and allowing saltwater to push further into the water table. Citrus groves are impacted largely by the saltwater intrusion, which kills trees slowly.”
CROP REDUCTION AND VARIETIES
“Each year an annual Agricultural Summary is put together statewide which has shown that the current citrus crop has dropped to less than half of the 1940s rate,” Timmerman reported. “It will continue to fall this year due to Hurricane Zeta losses and the loss of several growers.”
She says Plaquemines Parish produces primarily satsumas for the fresh fruit market, with smaller amounts of navel oranges and other citrus grown.
RESEARCH BRINGS HOPE
“The LSU AgCenter has partnered with the Meraux Foundation to develop a $150,000 research facility to both investigate and demonstrate how containerized, protected citrus groves could be one solution to the double threat of land loss and disease pressures within the state,” Timmerman reported. “Research will be funded through a $320,000 endowment from the Meraux Foundation as well as a specialty crop block grant that was awarded.”
According to Timmerman, the growing system under study is similar to the CUPS (citrus under protective screen) system in Florida; however, trees are not grown in the ground. “The goal is to create a new industry guide to growing in controlled, containerized systems at a high density using dwarf trees,” she says. “It is hoped that this growing system will work to improve fresh fruit quality, control HLB and the Asian citrus psyllid, and increase yield in these screen houses so that it is scalable to traditional large groves and small urban growers alike.”
“Plaquemines Parish and Louisiana’s citrus industry in general face many challenges. However, the long history of citrus production in the state shows that the industry is adaptable and resilient,” Timmerman concluded. “Growers will find a way to produce citrus as long as demand continues.”
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