What is in this article?:
- Florida Citrus Mutual leader: An upbeat future for industry
- Fortunate to buy young trees
- Can't eradicate them
- Lean operation
• 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.
FLORIDA CITRUS MUTUAL’S new president, Mark Wheeler, in one of his family’s groves near Lake Wales. The near-term future for citrus looks positive, he says, likely leading to some new plantings and grove rehabilitation.
Fortunate to buy young trees
“Nursery trees are tight,any way you look at it,” says Mark Wheeler. “We’ve been fortunate and have been able to buy the young trees we want. We have consistent demand and a good reputation with the nurseries, and we buy a sizable chunk of trees at a time. David is very good about cultivating and maintaining relationships. We need everybody in the nursery industry who does it right to be in our Rolodex.”
All the more reason, then, to rehabilitate those abandoned groves. The Wheeler crew chainsaws off dead wood, and both foliar and granular fertilizer snap trees out of the doldrums after their starvation period.
“They respond very well,” Mark says. “This particular grove of pineapples looked beyond hope to me, but David wanted to try to rehab them and we got a pretty high percentage of recovery. I was surprised — in a good way. What we learned is that you can sometimes be fooled by appearances.”
In some cases, it’s possible to use the old tree as a rootstock, then bud a new variety onto it. “It’s expensive, but is a way to get into production quickly,” he says.
All this is part of the new reality in citrus production, post-greening disease. Growers now have to get young trees to bearing fruit quickly because they will inevitably have a shorter productive life than prior to becoming infected with greening disease.
“The life cycle of the tree is not going to be as long,” Mark says. “Cost of production is as much as double in some cases. The grower has to ask, ‘What kind of revenue is it going to take to remain viable into the future?’ Young trees are more susceptible to greening, so the goal is to get them into production more quickly. We need to make some income from them faster.”
The psyllid, the tiny winged insectthat spreads greening disease, is now virtually omnipresent in Florida’s groves. Total control is unlikely, which means growers need to learn how to live with a certain amount of infestation.