By: Roger Williams
WAYNE SIMMONS PARKED his Ford truck sporting a “Drink Orange Juice” tag on a dirt track near a 60-acre Hendry County grove of members of the Rue family (Rutaceae), which could appear in a hospital soap opera if they were human. But they aren’t. The most prominent and troubled family member is citrus, but the Rues include such relatives as roses, among many others.
Citrus is gravely ill, but still productive.
Beneath the truck tires, the track was covered with the chopped mulch of once-upon-a-time orange trees killed by mischance.
Most were destroyed by Hurricane Irma almost 12 months ago. But some were the victims of an insect-borne bacterial disease more dangerous to citrus farmers over time than any 10 hurricanes.
Mr. Simmons had cut the ruined trees out of the grove, dragged them clear, and run them through an industrial mulcher before spreading the result back on the ground.
“At least there’s some use out of them,” he said.
Cheerful and fit-looking, Mr. Simmons, 60, grew up on a farm near Plant City, like five generations of his family before him. He’d stopped here on the first morning of August to greet two visitors: a Florida Weekly reporter and a man familiar to citrus farmers internationally — farmers growing citrus from China, India, Spain, North Africa and Brazil to the five counties of Southwest Florida — Dr. Mongi Zekri, a University of Florida citrus extension agent based in LaBelle.
They had come to assess the current condition of Florida’s citrus industry, a powerful economic force in the Sunshine State from the late 1940s to 2005. For 13 years since then, citrus has been beleaguered and in decline though still a significant producer, the victim of the seemingly unstoppable disease called greening.
Now, farmers, agricultural scientists and promoters of the industry working together in a unique historic alliance all express a cautious optimism about the future…