Citrus growers are grateful for reports that consumers continue to crave sweet, tangy freshness.

“There has been some sort of dynamic shift, maybe over the past 18 to 24 months,” said Trent Bishop, vice president and founder of Lone Star Citrus Growers based in Mission, Texas. Lone Star is the purveyor of Winter Sweetz red Texas grapefruit. Of the 28,000-acre citrus market in Texas, Lone Star represents about 35 percent, composed of mostly grapefruit groves.

“Personally, I believe the millennials have embraced the grapefruit as a new commodity they didn’t eat much growing up,” Bishop said. “We are trying to show them that it isn’t your grandmother’s grapefruit that you had to put sugar on. You have to be on your game to sell to millennials, and we accept that challenge. We are educating a whole new group of consumers about the healthiness and sweet taste of the grapefruit.”

The evidence of strong citrus demand this winter is more than anecdotal. Global marketing firms such as IBISWorld project that even with continued production setbacks from bacterial citrus greening, the $3.7 billion industry is expected to remain solid and even chart a little growth over the next five years.

“It does look like demand will at least be consistent until then,” said Jack Curran, an agriculture industry research analyst in New York City for IBISWorld. “Over the next five years, we predict that revenue is going to increase and that’s mainly because, even with the greening, we expect consistent if not growing demand and higher prices for citrus. And, even though we are seeing more growth for juicing and processing, demand for fresh fruit and vegetables is not decreasing. It is staying consistent.”

Curran’s latest report forecasts citrus exports to grow at a slow rate, which he considers good news. “Based on data of the last five years, (exports have) been in decline, so that is reversing – albeit at a slow rate. That is still positive, no matter what.”

Growers hopeful but weary

That citrus is popular is nothing new to its American growers, many of whom are beat from more than a decade of fighting citrus greening, in particular, compounded by the typical threats of weather and pests.

Since appearing in Florida groves in 2005, citrus greening has cost the state $3.6 billion in economic damage according to studies by the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS), and more than 80 percent of citrus trees there have been affected by the disease. The bacterial disease is not harmful to humans, and there is no known cure for it.

“I would take overproduction, freezes, anything compared to what we are facing with greening because, as of right now, there’re no answers, just lots of questions,” said Ned Hancock, president of Hancock Citrus, Inc., which owns or manages about 1,000 acres in Highlands and Hardee counties in Florida. “We have a lot of great researchers working to find the answers for us, so we do remain optimistic.”

Hancock, who is also president of Highlands County Citrus Growers Association, said that no growers have escaped the dramatic and traumatic effects of greening. “The more aggressive you are in trying to fight the disease early on, the better condition you’re in and a lot of it has to do with who your neighbors are and the degree to which they are committed to fighting it,” he said. “Nobody has gotten away unscathed.”

Hancock and other growers anticipate research developments to extend the lives of infected trees. “We have got to have a new tree, whether it is through traditional methods or genetically modified,” Hancock said. “The problem becomes the capital involved in going in and taking out all your existing trees and putting in new trees. That won’t be an immediate option for everyone.”

Solid demand could keep those growers who can hang on in the game while the citrus industry in Florida rebuilds.

“I hope we develop a strategy to allow existing trees to remain economically viable while we are working to replace trees that aren’t viable with superior trees that don’t have the same issue,” Hancock said. “Right now it’s just a tremendous expenditure when you start replacing entire groves and there’s an absence of revenue when you do that.”

Demand will challenge supply, increase prices

Southern citrus growers, take heart. Researchers tracking demand for citrus and searching for answers to the citrus greening epidemic continue to offer what they consider good news.

“There’s more demand overseas for citrus,” said Jack Curran, agriculture industry research analyst for marketing firm IBISWorld. “What could be good news for domestic production exports is Brazil, which seems to have had a bad year for production, and Brazil is the biggest citrus exporter in the world.”

Curran said unseasonably hot temperatures in September and October are similar to weather in 2015, which resulted in a smaller crop.

“A lot of companies that export from Brazil are now open to receiving from someplace else and possibly the U.S.,” Curran said.

Solid demand for citrus is important to the struggling citrus community, which will need whatever capital it can muster to weather an overhaul.

Europeans like the zip of citrus so much so that Future Market Insights, a London-based market intelligence and consulting company, reported earlier this year that the demand for citrus flavoring there will rise over the next decade. The growth is expected to occur at a rate of 4.8 percent with emphasis on beverages and sweets.

As American growers evaluate what to do next in their own groves, Curran suggested diversifying offerings where possible. Considering the industry as a whole, Curran said declines in orange production in Florida were offset by increased demand and production of mandarins in California.

“Diversification is always going to be helpful because if something goes wrong with your trees, you have something to fall back on,” he said. “It could be something to consider in case greening comes around again.”

Greening goes west

Citrus greening has moved into groves across the country. “About the sixth year after Florida discovered they had greening is when production started to slip dramatically, and we are nearing that [in Texas],” said Dale Murden, a citrus grower and president of Texas Citrus Mutual based in the Rio Grande Valley. “Having said that, our trees still look healthy.”

Hotter summers and harsher winters may be helping curb the spread of greening in Texas. One challenge greening presents is that infected trees don’t show symptoms during the first year of infection.

Fortunately, greening “has not affected the way we do business,” said Bishop of Lone Star Citrus Growers. “There are some infected groves that have some of the prettiest trees and fruit in the Rio Grande Valley. We might wake up tomorrow and things could start changing and we don’t take that for granted.”

Tony Marquez, also known as Farmer Tony, eyeballs an early navel orange growing on the 28-acre Pearson Ranch in Porterville, California. He said that while citrus remains popular globally, “We don’t want to relive what is happening in Florida. We’re scared.”

Texas growers cited weather, citrus canker and Mexican fruit fly as pressing concerns, too.

Jesse Lozano of Triple J Organics LLC, who owns and manages about 75 acres of certified organic grapefruit and orange groves, said that while Mexican fruit fly and rust mites have been tough on his groves, he is equally worried about greening. “The organic grower cannot fumigate,” Lozano said. “We are allowed to spray certain types of sulphur and natural oils to prevent greening, but they only work on contact. Once you spray it on, you are finished.”

Lozano said he is not expecting increased demand for his organic produce but he is hopeful that drought conditions in California will fuel his grapefruit sales.

The juice on citrus greening

What is it? Citrus greening, or Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus, is considered one of the most serious citrus plant diseases in the world. It is also known as Huanglongbing or yellow dragon disease.

How does it work? A disease-infected insect, the Asian citrus psyllid (Diaphorina citri Kuwayama), spreads the disease by feeding on citrus leaves and stems. Infected trees produce fruits that are green, misshapen, bitter and unsuitable for sale as fresh fruit or juice. Most infected trees die within a few years.

Where is it? California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Texas and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Psyllids have been detected in Alabama, American Samoa, Arizona, Guam, Hawaii, Mississippi, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

It is dangerous to humans? No.

SOURCE: U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE’S ANIMAL AND PLANT HEALTH INSPECTION SERVICE WEBSITE (HTTP://WWW.HUNGRYPESTS.COM/THE-THREAT/CITRUS-GREENING.PHP)

California’s advantage

While greening has been discovered in California, citrus growers have benefitted from watching its evolution in the East.

“We are trying to learn from the mistakes Florida made because early on, when greening arrived, they assumed they’d find something to fix it,” said Tony Marquez. His 28-acre Pearson Ranch in Porterville, California, produces navel oranges, pomelos and specialty citrus.

“The problem is they haven’t found the definitive rootstock that is resistant to the bug, and once they do it in the lab, that’s one thing. How long will it take to put it out there and propagate it for all these growers who are replacing their trees?” Marquez said.

Researchers at the University of Florida are taking several approaches to corner citrus greening. Professor Nian Wang of the UF/IFAS Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred, Florida, has found a chemical treatment known as bactericide could help preserve citrus trees with greening.

“It takes five years for a tree to pay for itself, so we are looking at five to eight years before we have a root stock that is viable and making money.”

Were greening to spread like in Florida, it could mean disaster in California where drought and water shortages have made growing citrus tough.

“The water issue is very, very huge,” Marquez said. “In California, for citrus anyway, there are a lot of things we have to shield ourselves from.”