Mark Wheeler examines the newflush of growth on 70 rehabilitated acres of pineapple oranges near Lake Wales and likes what he sees.

Someone driving by and judging with only a quick glance might think these trees are barely clinging to life. In reality, they’re an example of the resilience of both Wheeler’s family and the Florida citrus industry.

Mark, who is Florida Citrus Mutual’s new president,  and his brother David anticipate an uptick in the business and learned to rehabilitate groves abandoned by developers wiped out in the economic recession.

Much of this land was slated for development. Now, at least for the short term, it will continue to produce oranges.

“We can rehab these trees and get them back in production in a couple of years, compared to the three or four years it would take to get new trees into production,” Mark says. “These older groves are wide-set. It could be that they’ll never get the high production possible with a young tight-set grove, but we can make up for some of that by getting fruit off them more quickly. Some people think you’re better off starting from scratch because of the recovery rate of the rehabbed trees, but we’re seeing about 80 percent recovery. We’ll take that.”

Florida’s development crash has also made citrus expansion affordable.

“In the boom years, this land went for $30,000 to $35,000 an acre,” he says. “Now we’re picking it up for less than $10,000, which is about the price it went for in 2000. It’s possible to get some grove land, planted and producing, for $5,000 an acre without development rights.”

The timing could be right for citrus expansion, he thinks. With juice price at a profitable level at the same time land prices have fallen, many growers can justify adding or planting groves.

“I think we’ve seen Florida citrusacreage bottom out and begin to head back up,” Mark says. “We hit around 550,000 acres, and I can see getting up to 600,000. I don’t know if we’ll get back to the 850,000 acre level, but we’ll add acreage from where we’ve been.

“Acreage will be a pure function of demand. I don’t think juice price will remain where it has been this year, but if we still see a somewhat elevated price for two or three years, I think we can get back up to 600,000 acres.

“But if the price drops for a year or two, growers will back off. I don’t think that’s going to happen — but I also don’t think we’re going to enjoy extremely high prices for the next five years.”

Nursery production will certainly be a limiting factor for growers looking to expand, however. Nursery costs multiplied by being forced to put young trees in greenhouses in order to avoid citrus greening disease. In addition, some nurseries now devote some resources to blueberries. “Even if the industry wanted to expand in a big way, we don’t have the young tree capacity to do it,” says David Wheeler.

“It has been very expensive to convert the nurseries to greenhouse production. As a result, tree cost has gone up. What had been a $3 or $4 tree became an $8 or $10 tree. It’s tough to even get enough trees to reset within a grove, not to mention plant new ground.” Young trees must be ordered a year in advance in order for nurseries to get them ready.