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Invasive insect threatens iconic Florida citrus

Monday - 8/25/2014, 2:16pm  ET

In this Wednesday, July 30, 2014 photo, Ellis Hunt Jr., 61, walks past an orange tree, left, which is affected by a disease called "greening", in Lake Wales, Fla. The Hunt family owns 5,000-plus acres of groves and is part of the co-op that contributes to Florida's Natural, the third largest juice brand in the country. Florida's $9 billion citrus industry is facing its biggest threat yet by a tiny invasive bug called the Asian Citrus Psyllid, which carries bacteria that are left behind when the psyllid feeds on a citrus tree's leaves. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

TAMARA LUSH
Associated Press

LAKE WALES, Fla. (AP) -- The tourists stream to Florida in their cars, intent on a week at Disney or a sugar-sand seashore or a nonstop party on South Beach. Road weary and thirsty, they pull over at one of the state's five official welcome centers. They walk inside, and then they look up.

"The best start under the sun," reads a big sign. "FLORIDA ORANGE JUICE."

Behind a counter, a woman sits with a stack of paper cups. "Welcome to Florida," she says with a big smile. "Orange or grapefruit?"

The juice is cold and sweet. It tastes like the Sunshine State.

Once, emerald green trees bursting with citrus carpeted more than half of the state, from the northern reaches of Jacksonville and the parks of Orlando to the Miami coastline. Oranges, especially, have long been synonymous with the magic of Florida.

Think back to those old advertisements touting OJ as a vitamin-filled glass of goodness. The dream of Florida as a tropical vacation paradise was cemented in Americans' minds through such promotions. Today, the orange adorns the state license plate. There is even a county called Citrus.

The people behind the groves have been among Florida's most influential. The University of Florida's famed football stadium was named after an orange magnate, and at least three of the state's governors were citrus growers.

Throughout the decades, citrus has stood strong -- through freezes, hurricanes and rampant development.

But now the $9 billion industry is facing its biggest threat yet, putting at risk the state's economy and very identity. Blame a mottled brown bug no bigger than a pencil eraser and a disease called "the yellow dragon."

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Have you seen those commercials that begin with a farmer's leather-gloved hands opening to reveal a blossom that ripens into an orange? The ads are for Florida's Natural juice, and Ellis Hunt Jr. is the man behind the brand.

Tall and thin, wearing jeans and a plain white button-down with a Florida-honed tan on his 61-year-old face, Hunt could star in one of those spots. His family owns 5,000-plus acres of groves and is part of the co-op that contributes to Florida's Natural -- the third-largest juice brand in the country, behind Pepsi's Tropicana and Coca-Cola's Minute Maid.

Hunt's grandfather started the company in 1922, and ever since Hunt could walk, his life was surrounded by oranges. He followed his father into the business, and now serves on the state's powerful citrus commission. He jokes that the backbreaking task of picking fruit was what inspired him to attend college, so he could take a rest from hard work.

This summer, Hunt's has been driving his truck through his groves in Polk County, the state's top citrus-producing region, and what he sees is uncertainty. Many of his trees look beautiful, acres upon acres of vibrant green. But trouble can be spotted if you look closely.

Hunt stops his truck, climbs out and points to a tree's limb. Some leaves have turned yellow, and the hue is spreading in waves. He guesses that 75 percent of his groves are infected.

In China, where it was first found, the disease is called huanglongbing. Translation: "the yellow dragon." In Florida, it's known simply as "greening."

It arrived here via a tiny invasive bug called the Asian Citrus Psyllid, which carries bacteria that are left behind when the psyllid feeds on a citrus tree's leaves. The tree continues to produce useable fruit, but eventually disease clogs the vascular system. Fruit falls, and the tree slowly dies.

The psyllid isn't native to Florida but is believed to have arrived from someone who perhaps unknowingly brought a slip of a tree from Asia. The bug was first spotted in the state in 1998, and some think it then spread on the winds of hurricanes. Greening showed up in 2005. There is no cure, and no country has ever successfully eradicated it.

All of that has Florida's growers in a frenzy to find a way to stop the disease.

"It feels like you're in a war," Hunt said.

Hunt estimates he's spending some $2,000 an acre on production costs, a 100 percent increase from 10 years ago. Much of that goes toward nutrients and spraying to try to control the psyllids. The trees that don't survive are pulled out of the earth and tossed onto a giant bonfire.

Nearly all of the state's citrus groves are affected in varying degrees by greening, and researchers, growers and experts agree that the crisis has already started to compromise Florida's prominence as a citrus-growing region. Florida is second in the world, behind Brazil, in growing juice oranges, producing about 80 percent of juice in the U.S.

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