Don Fussell, nurseryman and part-owner of Farkus & Fussell Citrus Nursery Inc., Plant City, is one of the few nurserymen left. Fussell says the company's biggest problem will be supplying budwood over the next three years. It cost the company $70,000 to adapt to the new Division of Plant Industry rules.

Getting a hold of busy Florida growers can be a task. But getting Florida citrus nurserymen on the phone is tougher.

It turns out that many weren't available to interview for this story because their nurseries had gone out of business.

In the 1960s, there were more than 1,000 commercial citrus nurseries in the state, says Michael Kesinger, chief of the Bureau of Citrus Budwood Registration for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Division of Plant Industry.

At last count, there were 35 to 40 citrus nurseries in Florida, Kesinger says?a significant drop-off from the more than 70 citrus nurseries in the state five years ago.

The biggest culprit linked to the sharp decline was the rapid spread of citrus canker across the state following the 2004 hurricane season.

"About two-thirds of (Florida) nursery production was field nurseries, one-third was greenhouses," says Bob Rouse, citrus specialist at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences' Southwest Florida Research and Education Center in Immokalee. "The field nurseries were most affected by citrus canker and then mostly destroyed."

As part of the Citrus Canker Eradication Program, many nursery owners lost their businesses, as some nurseries had to be completely burned to the ground.

Oviedo-based Duda Farm Fresh Foods Inc. decided to end its nursery business after a handful of canker-infected finds in the summer of 2005 led to the burning of its 50-acre LaBelle field nursery, says Mark Colbert, general manager. He estimates the loss at 500,000 trees.

"We gave up on the nursery when field nurseries became impossible," Colbert says. "There's a need for quite a few resets after the canker recall. But rather than make the investment for screenhouses, we'll pay more for the trees (from other nurseries)."

Following the official end of the canker eradication program in January 2006 and the introduction of citrus greening in the state, the Division of Plant Industry created rules that have been echoed in the Citrus Health Response Plan, which calls for new sanitation requirements and the enclosure of all citrus nurseries as of Dec. 26, 2006. The plan is a federal citrus guideline.

As disease stressed the nursery business, these regulations and subsequent additional costs have led to widespread business failure and headaches for those who continue to tough it out. The lack of adequate trees for citrus growers also is a riddle that the remaining nurserymen have to solve.

The new Division of Plant Industry rules include sanitation requirements. Prior to entering a nursery, everyone must decontaminate with an approved personal decontamination product and wear a clean garment provided by the nursery.

New rules

As part of the Citrus Nursery Stock Certification Program, regulated by the division, a set of rules governing the Florida citrus nursery industry has been put into effect covering the nursery site and structure, sanitation, citrus propagation, source trees and scion trees.

The rules weren't just developed to battle canker and greening, Rouse says. Diseases such as citrus variegated chlorosis, which is present in Brazil and is moving through Central America, and black spot, a fungal disease that causes fruit drop, also are on the radar, he says.

A full listing of the new regulations is available online at Main points include the following:

  • The rules require new nursery sites to be built a minimum of one mile away from commercial citrus groves.
  • Nurseries existing on-site prior to April 1, 2006, are grandfathered into the regulations, Kesinger says.
  • All nursery stock propagated after Jan. 1, 2007, must originate from a greenhouse structure approved by the department. Approved structures must have enclosed sides and a top to exclude insects and have positive-pressure, double-door entries.
  • All equipment entering or leaving the nursery must be cleaned of all plant material and soil, using approved decontamination products.
  • Prior to entering the nursery, everyone must decontaminate with an approved personal decontamination product and wear a clean garment provided by the nursery. Anyone entering the structure or soil storage area will use a sanitizing foot bath approved by the department.

In accordance with the rules, the division is in the process of moving its foundation (source) trees north out of the commercial growing area to greenhouses in Chiefland, Kesinger says. "We're starting construction of greenhouses now and hope to complete the project this summer," he says.

For now, the division's foundation trees are still available to nurseries from Dundee, Immokalee and Winter Haven.

Scion trees propagated from registered foundation trees must be housed separately from foundation trees in an enclosed structure.

The division has reorganized its nursery inspection group such that a team of five inspectors will oversee Florida citrus nurseries exclusively. In the past, inspectors divided their time between nurseries, ornamentals and retail operations, Kesinger says.

Inspections have begun this year, in accordance with the new rules, and will be performed every 30 days, he says.

To help clear up any confusion, IFAS and the Florida Citrus Nurserymen's Association both offer training on how to adapt to the new regulations, Rouse says.

As of Jan. 1, state regulations stipulate that all budwood trees must originate from an approved greenhouse structure. Approved structures must be enclosed and feature positive-pressure, double-door entries.

New costs

All of these changes don't come cheap to nurserymen, and citrus growers also feel the pinch, in the form of higher tree prices.

The capital investment in the greenhouses and the cost of updated sanitation practices aren't the only things leading to increased prices. The large citrus growing companies are now requesting high-head trees for mechanical harvesting. Such trees require more training and time in the nursery, Rouse says, noting that time and space in a nursery equals money spent.

The sum of these factors has led to tree prices doubling, Kesinger says.

Now, trees that ran $4-4.50 prior to regulation changes are going for $8-10, he says.

But thanks to a stronger market for citrus -- according to The Packer newspaper, midseason oranges were selling for $14-15 a carton in mid-February, compared with the normal $8-10 range -- higher tree prices aren't hurting growers too much. "As long as fruit prices are up, growers can afford the trees," Kesinger says.

Most players in the Florida citrus industry understand the cost displacement of the nurseries that are left.     

"The nurserymen who are willing to make this investment deserve the higher prices they will command," Duda's Colbert says.

One of those nurserymen is Don Fussell, co-owner of Farkas & Fussell Citrus Nursery Inc., Plant City.

"We're adapting, but it's going to be a long, hard process," Fussell says.

Farkas & Fussell has 45,000-50,000 trees, and it has cost the company $70,000 to convert to the enclosed nursery structures.

"Forty acres would cost $15 million to enclose," Fussell says.

But he says the trees probably won't produce enough budwood for three years, and they need to keep 400-500 trees for their own budwood supply.

"In three years, we'll have enough budwood to supply our own facility, with some to sell," he says.

The good news for Fussell and other nurserymen incurring more cost is that business is booming, in part to all the trees that growers have lost to disease.

Farkas & Fussell has already booked orders for 2008, and Fussell says some nurseries have booked orders for 2009.

There were 5 million to 5.5 million trees available a couple years ago, says the division's Kesinger. Last year there were 1.4 million trees available.

For now, nurserymen and the entire Florida citrus industry will have to play the waiting game until supply returns to normal.

"Some nurseries will rebuild, but it will be a tight supply for a while," Kesinger says.