Florida's orange crops have been quietly dying for over a decade as growers fight to save them

PHOTO: It takes at least two oranges to produce a single 8 ounce glass of orange juice.PlayABC News
WATCH Oranges are fighting hurricanes, frost and disease

Florida’s staple crop, citrus, was severely impacted in September 2017 by Hurricane Irma. The deadly storm set records when it plowed through the state as the longest, strongest cyclone in history.

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PHOTO: Oranges being sorted before juicing at Florida Natural’s headquarters in Lake Wales, Florida.ABC News
Oranges being sorted before juicing at Florida Natural’s headquarters in Lake Wales, Florida.

An early estimate of the damage to the state’s agriculture was $2.5 billion, and $760 million of that was citrus, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture.

Irma came after the crop’s production was already slowly worsening. In a little over a decade, Florida has lost more than half of its orange crop, according to the University of Florida’s Citrus Research and Education Center.

“We lost the majority of this year’s crop. We’ve been cut in half on a production level because of disease this cuts that half in half,” one orange producer said.

PHOTO: Orange groves that belong to Hunt Brothers Cooperative, one of the six founding members of what is now Floridas Natural.ABC News
Orange groves that belong to Hunt Brothers Cooperative, one of the six founding members of what is now Florida's Natural.

Florida's orange production, at 68.8 million boxes for the 2016 to 2017, is down 16 percent from the previous season of 81.7 million boxes, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Much of the decline is due to citrus greening, a disease that strikes the orange groves through bacteria that passed onto them by an almost microscopic insect called the Asian citrus psyllid.

PHOTO: The Asian citrus psyllid spreads a bacteria that causes citrus greening, a disease that has devastated Floridas orange crop.University of Florida
The Asian citrus psyllid spreads a bacteria that causes citrus greening, a disease that has devastated Florida's orange crop.

The disease starts by killing off the tree’s root system before making its way up to leaves and fruit. And by the time the growers notice the leaves’ discoloration from the greening, they’ve lost 30 to 40 percent of the root system below.

With the drought periods that the grove areas have gone through, the oranges will start to drop off the trees.

PHOTO: Scott Young, a citrus farmer, tells Ginger Zee he had to reduce his grove from 400 acres to less than 100 acres due to citrus greening. ABC News
Scott Young, a citrus farmer, tells Ginger Zee he had to reduce his grove from 400 acres to less than 100 acres due to citrus greening.

“This is my home,” says Florida citrus farmer Scott Young. “I was born here, and this was a thriving beautiful grove four years ago, I’m talking about, this is the best citrus land in the world, still, but you’ve got a pest they can’t overcome.” The inability to grow quality citrus due to citrus greening forced Mr. Young to sell three quarters of his land in Alturas, Florida.

PHOTO: The University of Florida has implemented a screenhouse that blocks out the bug that is spreading citrus greening disease. ABC News
The University of Florida has implemented a "screenhouse" that blocks out the bug that is spreading citrus greening disease.

Scientists are working on solutions to save the orange crop that is a large economic force of the state of Florida, making up $8.6 billion dollars of its economy, according to Florida Citrus Mutual.

In this episode of “Food Forecast,” we explore the sunny Florida orange groves to learn more about how the hurricane and pests impact where we get our orange juice.

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