Experts seek cure for ailing citrus industry


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Frank Sullivan has not given up on the potential of a citrus rebirth in Brevard County.

Klinton Landress

Korinn Braden, the director of Field Manor, once enjoyed looking at the acres of experimental citrus trees the University of Florida had planted on the Merritt Island homestead of a Brevard County citrus grower.

Unfortunately, Braden witnessed the once-promising grove’s decline as another hope to find a cure for an ailing industry wilts.

“They were trying to use a rootstock that would be resilient, but the trees are just not thriving,” Braden said.

The historical property by the banks of the Indian River on Merritt Island would have been the perfect showcase for the rebirth of the Brevard citrus industry, which has been languishing since two major diseases, greening and canker, infected the majority of trees.

Canker is bad because it blemishes the fruit, but does not affect the flavor, which still can be used in processing. Greening is worse since, as the name implies, the fruit remains green and never reaches maturity.

“We tried everything within reason to make those trees grow,” said Frank Sullivan, a board member with Field Manor.

Before canker and before greening, Sullivan Victory Groves was once famous for its luscious Indian River citrus. These days, Sullivan owns only 20 acres, where cattle graze and no oranges grow.

Although the future is not rosy for citrus, it is not bleak since growers in the state fight back. A conglomerate of old citrus families in Indian River County have joined forces with Coca-Cola and Japanese investors to develop 1,500 acres of grapefruit, according to Sullivan.

“Untold millions are beings spent on research on new varieties that are resistant to greening,” he added.

In Polk County, growers are experimenting by growing citrus under screen enclosures.

“They’ve planted 110 acres, with 110 more being prepared and another 110 in the works,” Sullivan said.

Dundee Citrus Growers, a cooperative, aims for a million trees on the ground by loaning member growers $10 per tree planted. If the tree thrives to the point of bearing productive fruit, the loan will be forgiven.

“We’re inching back,” Sullivan said.

Perhaps even Field Manor might one day be again adorned with the golden pearls of oranges.