By Vicky Boyd

Mark Twain may not have been involved in Florida citrus, but Mike Sparks found a rendition of one of Twain’s famous quotes appropriate to describe the industry’s current state of affairs.

“The rumors of the Florida citrus industry’s demise have been greatly exaggerated,” says Sparks, vice president and chief executive officer of the Lakeland-based Florida Citrus Mutual.

But that’s not to say that the industry doesn’t have its share of challenges, most notably disease pressures followed by a large orange juice inventory carryover and declining orange juice consumption.

Those have combined to put downward pressure on grower returns, Sparks says.

“To say that 20009 was not an easy season is probably an understatement,” he says.

His comments came during his annual “state of the citrus industry” presentation to media during the recent Citrus Industry Annual Conference in Bonita Springs, Fla.

Break-even for most growers of juice oranges is $1.21 to $1.25 per pound solids. But cash prices hovered around 80 to 90 cents per pound solids for much of the season, Sparks says.

“Those growers who didn’t have a long-term contract probably didn’t even break even,” Sparks says. “It wasn’t until the end of the season that the valencia crop reported $1.20 [cash price].”

About half of the state’s production is under long-term contracts with processors, he says.

The battle against citrus greening, a bacterial disease also known as Huanglongbing or HLB, has taken center stage in the Sunshine State.

“The immediate issue is the war against that bug,” Sparks says. “All of the 32 Florida counties that have citrus production have HLB.”

Spread by the Asian citrus psyllid, the disease—which is harmless to humans—can reduce fruit yields, cause an undesirable taste in the fruit and kill a citrus tree in as few as two years. There is no known cure.

Currently, growers focus on scouting groves to try to detect the disease as soon as possible. When they find an infected tree, many remove it to help reduce the disease source. Others try to keep the tree alive and in production for a few more years with special nutrition programs.

At the same time, growers are mounting an aggressive treatment program against the Asian citrus psyllid. Many growers have banded together to create area-wide spray programs, since the psyllid can readily fly several hundred feet across grove borders and jump from a small treated area to an untreated area.

Additional scouting combined with increased insecticide applications and tree remove have caused production costs to jump by about 50 percent, Sparks says.

How many acres have been lost to the disease is the subject of a survey, he says.

Between depressed prices and citrus greening, growers have removed enough acres to cause production to drop to pbetween 155 million and 160 million 90-pound box equivalents this season, Sparks says.

As soon as next year that number could decline to 140 million box equivalents. At its peak, the Florida industry produced 200 million box equivalents, he says.