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One-two punch of disease and Irma has left Florida citrus reeling

by Kalhan Rosenblatt /

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WINTER HAVEN, Fla. — In the hours after Hurricane Irma raked up Florida's spine, warm sunshine revealed thousands upon thousands of pieces of citrus fruit bobbing in muddied, stagnant water.

Millions of dollars worth of oranges, grapefruits, and tangerines were ripped from their branches by fierce winds, never to reach their intended destination of breakfast plates and juice glasses.

It was the nightmare many sleepless farmers prayed they wouldn't see.

“I remember … heading out to the fields as soon as it was safe to get out on the roads and being taken back at how much fruit was blown on the ground … and how many trees had just been blown over,” said one citrus farmer, William Roe III, 35, known as Gee.

“We were literally blown away by the severity of the damage," said Roe's uncle, Quentin Roe, 59, the chief executive of Wm. G. Roe & Sons, a longtime grower and distributor.

Irma knocked 50 to 90 percent of Florida’s citrus fruit to the ground in some areas, according to the state commissioner of agriculture, Adam Putnam, causing $760 million in damage in the worst year for Florida oranges since 1945.

But more was damaged than just a year's crop.

Citrus accounts for approximately 45,000 full- and part-time jobs in the state. Hurricane Irma is credited with wiping out nearly 56,000 jobs directly and indirectly tied to Florida's agricultural sector and dealing a $2.39 billion blow to labor income.

The storm also signaled the end of a way of life for many farmers who lost their harvest. Those who had no one to pick what remained have since given up and sold their land.

Many were already reeling before the winds and rain hit, thanks to a crippling disease known as citrus greening, which has ravaged crops here for years. Greening was responsible for a 31 percent decline in employment in the industry from 2012 to 2015.

Last year was eagerly anticipated to be a comeback year for an industry that produces 60 percent of the citrus fruits consumed in the United States. Instead of a revival, they got Hurricane Irma.

For consumers, that is likely to mean paying higher prices for juice. For Florida's farmers, and the industry that became synonymous with the state, the future is far less certain.

Four generations, one industry

Just after 10 o'clock in Winter Haven, on an unusually cool morning for January, a bell inside the Roes' packing house summoned a sleeping assembly line back to life.

The acidic smell of Hamlin oranges and aged wood from a vaulted ceiling dating to the early 20th century radiated from the facility as Quentin and Bill Roe II, 64, watched the fist-size oranges tumble down the line.

At the end, workers hand-packed each piece of fruit deemed most perfect into boxes branded “Noble Citrus,” to be shipped across the country, predominantly to the Northeast. The others would be sorted for juice, local markets and animal feed.

 Quentin Roe and William "Bill" Roe II outside their citrus packing house in Winter Haven, Florida. Rebecca Davis / NBC News

Third-generation farmers, the brothers lead a family that has been part of Florida’s citrus industry for more than 90 years. Quentin is CEO and Bill is vice president. The fourth generation — Gee, the packing operations manager, and Geoff Roe, a property manager — are Bill's sons.

Their groves stretch across the state, producing a variety of citrus, some of which is one of a kind.

Tangerines are their crown jewel, and the family has modified and engineered several varieties to make the fruit not only taste better but to be less messy to peel. They also grow varieties of oranges, grapefruit and pomelos.

In the last decade, disease and storms have cut their production to 50 percent of capacity.

They operate fewer days a week now, and have watched growers around them give up as production has dropped.

“This used to be a heavy citrus-growing area, even within the last six or seven years, and all those groves have been taken out except for our family's groves,” Quentin said. “So this is very personal. It's very close.”

When things are going right, the Roes say being part of an industry that helps feed the nation is "magical."

“I can’t imagine a more enjoyable way to make a living than waking up every morning and watching your citrus grow,” Quentin said. “Being able to walk the groves, and then watch that fruit as it rolls across the line in the packing house and gets placed into a carton — there's something magical about that.”

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While they say they remain optimistic, the younger generation of Roes have not been spared the frustration of fighting citrus greening, an incurable disease that constantly eats away at the quality of their product.

“I’ve told people many times, I don't wish citrus on my worst enemy most days,” Geoff, 30, said. "Citrus is probably not the industry for a young person to strive to get into."

Citrus is also not an industry that still powers Florida's economy the way it once did. As growers sell their groves to developers and pavement replaces trees, citrus industry towns like Alachua and Arcadia, where fruit was once the economic lifeblood, are suffering, said Shannon Shepp, executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus, the state agency charged with the marketing and regulation of citrus products.

In recent years, Quentin and Bill Roe say there is no amount of money they can pay domestic workers to pick their citrus, so they have turned to a seasonal workforce from Central America using H2A visas, which are provided for temporary agricultural workers.

When Irma loomed over Florida, the Roes told their seasonal workers at the U.S.-Mexico border to stay put.

“We lost about a third of our labor force that just dissipated at the border," Quentin said. "We never caught up with them again."

The fight against disease

Citrus greening, also known as yellow dragon disease, is spread by a kind of louse called the Asian citrus psyllid, the size of a grain of rice. Psyllids are whipped across the state by wind, making them effective carriers for disease during hurricanes.

Citrus greening is harmless to humans and animals, but the disease causes fruit to be misshapen and overly bitter. Most citrus trees in Florida are believed to be infected with it.

 An orange suffering from the effects of citrus greening. Rebecca Davis / NBC News

Tree diseases have already affected the taste, quality and quantity of Florida’s citrus fruit.

"For anyone who wants to advertise 100 percent Florida orange juice, it’s virtually a thing of the past," Bill Roe said, adding that imports are making up the difference. It's also not as good as it was 10 years ago, he said.

Since Hurricane Irma rolled through Florida, an additional bacteria, known as canker, has begun to infect trees

"It functions differently than greening does," Gee Roe, the packing operations manager, said. "It affects the outside of the fruit, primarily just the fruit and the leaves."

Because the Roe family sells fresh fruit, meant to be consumed and not turned into another product like juice, aesthetics are almost as important as taste.

This seemingly ceaseless list of gut-punches to Florida’s citrus industry has caused the cost of production per acre to skyrocket for growers.

 A citrus tree leaf exhibiting discoloration associated with citrus greening. Rebecca Davis / NBC News

Not long ago, citrus cost $800 to $1,000 per acre to produce. Today, growers are spending $2,000 to $3,000 per acre and even more for specialty fruit, the kind the Roes grow.

For many growers, it's difficult to justify the investment.

“The production per acre has been cut down to one-third of what it used to be. So if you were growing 500 boxes per acre before, you're growing 150 boxes per acre now,” Quentin said. “So it's really been ravaging. You're spending two to three times as much to grow two-thirds less.”

Irma delivers a devastating blow

Survival in the citrus industry looked to be a sure thing at the beginning of 2017.

“A lot of the new growing techniques that have been coming out over the last 24, 36, 48 months, we've learned so much about the physiology of the tree and the face of this disease,” Quentin Roe, the CEO, said. “We've learned some new things to do, and a lot of those practices were being conducted over the past 12 months prior to the hurricane. Everybody had a lot of reason for optimism.”

The trees were looking fuller, and the fruit crop looked better, Quentin said.

Then the storm came and gave growers, as he puts it, “another big black eye.”

 William G. Roe and Sons, Inc packing house. Rebecca Davis / NBC News

“So we've lost one year for sure, probably a good part of a second year," Quentin said. "Is it going to take the trees 24 or 36 months to recover? We don't know. We've never been through a disaster of this magnitude before."

And the Roes aren't the only ones taking a hit.

The beginning of the year is when a lot of growers start getting the checks back from the sale of their early-to-midseason crops, said Shepp, of the state citrus department.

Shepp said one grower told her that his check last year was $55,000, while this year it was $15,000. "So that means that grower for that grove has $40,000 less capital to put into this next crop," she said.

Farmers in the industry say they are desperate for federal aid, which has been repeatedly requested by Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican. Whether they'll receive any is still undetermined.

Despite being a fourth-generation Florida citrus farmer, Gee Roe is uncertain what the future may hold for the industry.

"The name Florida Citrus, Florida Orange Juice, Florida Tangerines definitely has a lot of nostalgia," he said, "and that's a legacy that's very much in jeopardy."

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