It’s a new year, but with the same old concerns for the U.S. citrus industry.

An ailing economy and the ongoing scourge of citrus greening disease, not to mention an early January freeze in Florida, have all in the industry wondering what the future might hold.

“People still have to eat” has become somewhat of a mantra of optimism for the entire food industry during the recession, which is predicted to ease and recover, at least partially, during 2010.

But that certainly doesn’t mean the industry, including U.S. citrus, hasn’t felt the pinch.

“With the economy the way it is … people just aren’t buying what they used to,” said Bill Faysak, manager of Mesa Citrus Growers Association, Mesa, Ariz. “They’re not going out to dinner. It’s definitely being felt throughout the industry.”

Steve Nelsen, managing partner of Valhalla Sales & Marketing Co., Kingsburg, Calif., said, “I keep hearing people have to eat, but people can be very selective about what they eat. Largely, we’re controlled by what the retail sector does. If retail is high, it deters movement. I’ve found people actually buying one piece of fruit at a time.”

Retailers are definitely feeling pressure to offer value to customers on tighter budgets, and that pressure can trickle back through the entire supply chain, said Fred Berry, director of marketing for Mulholland Citrus, Orange Cove, Calif.

“I hear of some retailers moving citrus quite well, others moving slower,” Berry said. “I think the economy has some play in the situation. Hopefully, the product we’re selling is a good value to consumers. I think it is.”

Claire Smith, corporate communications director with Sunkist Growers Inc., Sherman Oaks, Calif., said she thought lemons had been hit especially hard because a majority of them go to foodservice, a sector that has really suffered.

Still, she said she thinks citrus business on the whole will remain strong.

“I think citrus is considered a value,” she said. “They’re nutritional. We sold valencias last summer as a value piece of fruit — with value packaging — and they did very well.”

Florida freeze effects

Florida’s citrus crops escaped serious damage after surviving one of the coldest nights in recent history in early January.

Freezing weather sent central Florida temperatures to record levels during the early morning hours of Jan. 6.

The cold, however, didn’t seriously harm the state’s citrus crop, sources said.

More pest funding on way

At least those in the citrus industry know the economy and the weather will turn around.

There are no such answers right now about how to fully rid orange groves of the Asian psyllid, which carries the bacteria that cause huanglongbing — or citrus greening — a disease that causes trees to produce bitter and misshapen fruit.

And it’s not just a Florida problem anymore. While that state has dealt with the problem longer and felt its effects more severely, Asian psyllids have been detected in Texas, Arizona and California as well.

Greening, however, has yet to be discovered in citrus groves in those states.

“It’s definitely a concern,” Faysak said. “Parts of Yuma and Coachella (Calif.) have been quarantined from shipping to Asia. It’s more than likely just a matter of time (before psyllids and greening arrive). There doesn’t seem to be any way of getting rid of it.”

Not that folks aren’t trying. Growers are spraying groves in an attempt to keep the psyllids at bay.

Engineers and researchers are trying everything from biological engineering to keep psyllids from reproducing to creating new tree stock that’s resistant to greening and citrus canker, which also is out there and difficult to control.

“(State and federal governments) just approved additional funding for research,” said Mark Hanks, vice president of sales and marketing at DNE World Fruit Sales, Fort Pierce, Fla. “They’re doing a lot of spraying.”

John McClung, president of the Texas Produce Association, Mission, said he believed much of the citrus disease issue was a federal issue.

“Funding from (the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) to fight greening and canker has been quite satisfactory,” he said. “There’s been a significant effort in Texas and California to do survey work to find where psyllids are and the eradication of bacteria. Long-term, it’s the biggest concern in the industry. But there’s a sizeable effort under way.”

Smith shared the concern.

“It could devastate the industry. State and federal governments are working with everybody in preventative measures and research,” she said.

Eastern Editor Doug Ohlemeier contributed to this report.