Canker continues to claim grove after grove as it marches across the heart of Florida's grapefruit production region on Florida's east coast. The bacterial disease which causes lesions on fruit and weakens trees, has most recently swept through groves in St. Lucie and southern Indian River counties, presumably carried by the wind and rain of two hurricanes that made landfall on the east coast last summer. More than thirteen commercial groves in that area are now being totally or partially destroyed.

But the east coast isn't the only area affected by canker – Broward, Brevard, Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Hendry, Highlands, Lee, Orange, Osceola, Manatee, Martin, Miami-Dade, Monroe, Okeechobee, Palm Beach and Sarasota counties have all been identified with canker. Those counties are still under active canker eradication programs.

Because there is no known biological nor chemical cure for canker, the only way to achieve total eradication of the disease is to destroy all trees located within 1,900 feet of an infected tree. And, that’s the law. The law, first enacted three years ago was due to sunset in June, but in March the Florida Legislature, reauthorized the 1,900 feet canker eradication law.

With the law in place, eradication can continue. But at a price. The cost of eradication since canker was first discovered near Miami International Airport in 1995 has been $477 million. Add another estimated $44 million in expenses this year.  That's a lot of money.

The answer to the question: why eradicate at a cost so great has recently been published by the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS). The research was co-authored by Marisa L. Sansler, Economist and Policy Development, USDA/APHIS, Thomas H. Spreen, professor and chair, UF Department of Food and Resource Economics, and Ronald P. Muraro, professor and Extension economist, CREC.

If the citrus canker eradication program (CCEP) were abandoned, it is assumed that canker would become endemic to the citrus industry. The benefits to the industry of the CCEP is avoiding the consequences of the increased cost of production, decline in fruit yield, lower packout rates – a 1/3 decrease from the present rate – and the loss of market access to other citrus growing regions including Texas, California and Western Europe.

In terms of real dollars, it is estimated the CCEP will save the industry nearly $2.5 billion over the long-term.  Researchers have calculated the eradication program will ultimately save growers nearly $170 million per year in additional production costs and another $85 million in lost revenues from lower fruit yields on infected trees and lost revenues from fruit unsuitable for market as a result of exterior canker lesions.

To keep growers and industry representatives informed, the Citrus Canker Technical Advisory Task Force (CCTATF) met late in March – the message they delivered was stunning – so far almost 12,000 acres and 1.5 million commercial citrus trees had been or were marked for destruction. That number is still climbing. But, there is still a high level of confidence in the science behind the eradication program and a belief that federal and state agencies responsible for the eradication program can, and will, if funding continues, eliminate the disease entirely.

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Charles Bronson has never wavered in his determination to see this thing through. And the USDA has been, and continues to be pro-active in its efforts to get the job done.

And growers are stepping up decontamination practices knowing that wind and rain are not the only carriers of the disease. It is estimated that growers, in compliance with decontamination agreements, have spend in excess of $40 million. Growers themselves have supported and even encouraged putting “more teeth” into the agreements.

In April, a sub-committee of the CCTATF met at the Indian River Citrus League in Vero Beach, chaired by George Hamner Jr., Indian River Exchange Packers, to address, among other things, ways to cut costs. The imperative to get in and out of groves with inspection teams as quickly as possible remains the highest priority and growers are anxious to help expedite the process. Finding any remaining canker positive trees and eliminating all within 1,900 feet is the key to total elimination of this disease. And there is increased pressure to get that done before the summer's tropical weather pattern. Additional survey teams had been brought into the Indian River production area by the USDA, but the costs are high.

A possible solution, that would reduce the cost of survey crews by half, emerged from the meeting. The idea is to employ packinghouse graders on a temporary basis while the packinghouses are closed. It is estimated that twice as many people could be hired under this scenario at half the money.  DPI Director Richard Gaskalla supported the idea. If this program can be implemented – it would be a win-win for everybody.

And, to be sure, growers and CCEP personnel will continue to devise ways, perhaps not yet thought of, to achieve the goal of total eradication.

Karen McEver is the editor of the Florida Citrus Reporter, 863-294-3838. E-mail is fcrnan_k@msn.com.