(Jan. 26) FORT PIERCE, Fla. — Growing grapefruit in a region that normally supplies half of the world’s fresh product, Indian River growers were keenly interested in hearing how to survive the citrus canker disease and protect their production for fresh and export markets.

Experts discussed how growers can live with the disease at the annual Indian River Citrus Seminar on Jan. 24-25.

Tim Gottwald, a plant pathologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s horticultural research laboratory in Fort Pierce, told growers that Hurricane Wilma may have spread canker to 29,000 acres of the Treasure Coast’s 165,000 citrus acres.

“When Wilma hit, there were some canker that hadn’t been dealt with,” he said.

Decontamination and surveys for canker are expected to continue after suspension of the 1,900-foot tree-cutting rule, said Jim Graham, a soil microbiologist at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences’ Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred.

Graham and others expressed concern about the state’s declining citrus nursery industry. Canker eradication has cut nursery stock by up to 60% since May.

Fritz Roka, a researcher with the university’s Southwest Florida Research and Education Center in Immokalee, said the state is considering relocating and rebuilding nurseries away from canker-infected areas.

“Without available tree replacement, overall citrus production will likely continue to decline,” he said.

The state also may ban highly susceptible citrus varieties, Roka said.

Grapefruit and some early oranges are most susceptible to the disease, Graham said. Hamlins and tangelos are rated as susceptible, while tangerines and valencias are considered more tolerant of the disease.

Because canker is hard to detect by eye, the probability of infections in surrounding trees remains high for several months, Graham said.

In a discussion on the economics of producing citrus in a canker environment, Ron Muraro, a University of Florida agricultural economist, said defoliating rather than removing infected trees can be less costly.

“If you decide to remain in the grapefruit business and manage canker, begin implementing a new fresh-fruit cultural program designed to manage citrus canker in smaller blocks,” he said.

The grapefruit market should remain favorable in future years, Muraro said.

Growers will be compensated for destruction of their canker-infested trees, said Michael Minton, a lawyer with the Orlando-based Dean Mead law firm, which started a task force to help growers deal with the legal issues that arise when canker is discovered in their groves.

“We have had quite a few clients contact us anxious about the current (eradication) program ceasing,” he said.

The USDA’s decision to end canker eradication has caused a lot of apprehension and fear, he said.

On Jan. 11, the USDA changed course in its efforts to combat the canker disease. Instead of eradicating canker, the USDA announced it would work with Florida agriculture officials to develop a control and suppression strategy. That new program is expected to be announced in March.