|Florida lost 127,182 acres of citrus crop land (17 percent of its total) in the 2006 crop census, and farmers are planting the fewest trees since the 1970s. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press)|
Fla. citrus crop loses land to housing, trees to disease
FORT PIERCE, Fla. - There seem to be more tractors tearing up St. Lucie County's old citrus groves than tending them these days.
This county once had more orange and grapefruit trees than almost any other place in Florida, the nation's largest citrus producer. Now it's one of the fastest-growing counties in one of the fastest-growing states, and the land here is fast giving way to housing tracts.
The same is happening in varying degrees across Florida's citrus belt and it has been for years, but the slide has suddenly quickened. Farmers are replanting the fewest trees since the 1970s, and crop land is rapidly disappearing. Previously high land prices, diseases like canker and greening, and even the rising cost of trees are hurting farmers and driving orange juice prices to record levels, up more than a third since 2002.
"It's a very, very expensive process to get back into the business, even though you have land sitting there fallow," said Doug Bournique, head of the Indian River Citrus League. "It's not a dollar a tree like it was 20 years ago, just to pop them into the ground." It can now cost $10 a tree.
Florida lost 127,182 acres (17 percent of its total) in the 2006 crop census - the second worst drop in history behind only a January 1986 freeze.
Canker and greening forced the destruction of tens of thousands of acres of trees in the past decade. Bad hurricane seasons in 2004 and 2005 raked groves. Some farmers sold to developers when land prices skyrocketed the past few years, though recent slowing in the housing market probably stymied that trend.
The fundamental problem is that it keeps costing more to grow.