VERO BEACH, Fla. — In the nearly 100 years that Rusty Banack’s family has been growing Florida’s world-famous grapefruit, the industry has lurched from years of bumper crops to the devastation of tree-toppling hurricanes.
But nothing compares to the current steep decline of the business, despite the state’s standing as the world’s biggest grapefruit producer. Florida produced nearly 41 million boxes of grapefruit a decade ago; this year it is expected to produce 16 million. Some growers have shut down, but the long-timers who remain, like Banack, have dug in, plunging millions of dollars into the land in an all-out bid to save one of the state’s emblematic citrus crops.
The past decade has been particularly treacherous as the salt-kissed soil of the Indian River Citrus District, known for its succulent grapefruit, has absorbed one wallop after another.
First there was the relentless spread of canker, which seriously damages grapefruit, and back-to-back powerful hurricanes. Next were studies highlighting the problematic effects of grapefruit on certain medicines and then the maw of urban development, which gobbled up countless groves.
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Now, grapefruit trees are facing another formidable foe: citrus greening, a bacterial disease with no cure that is devastating trees across the state.
“I was surprised by how fast the disease moved through the industry,” Banack said.
Driving his pickup recently through acres of trees — some with branches bearing clusters of grapefruit, others showing signs of ill health — Banack also spoke of another, more mundane problem: In today’s frenetic world, eating grapefruit can take too much time.
“It’s not convenient fruit,” Banack said, because it requires slicing and napkins to soak up the spurts of juice. “Nowadays people want to grab a banana, an apple, and head out the door.”
Mother Nature’s challenges
The most recent set of challenges — less land, more disease, higher costs and decreased consumption — has brought grapefruit production to its lowest point in 75 years, with the exception of the 2004 season, when two hurricanes barreled through the state. Orange trees, the mainstay of the citrus industry, are also being hurt by the Asian citrus psyllid, the tiny insect that causes greening of citrus trees. Infected fruit withers and drops before it ripens and cannot be sold.
While growers have been able to slow greening through fertilizer use and temperature regulation, they are paying three times more in production costs than they did in 1998, culling the number of growers who can afford to stay in the industry. Greening, which began in Florida in 2005, has spread to California and Texas. Scientists are seeking ways to conquer the voracious insect: In February, Congress authorized $125 million over five years for research. The Florida Legislature is expected to allocate several more million on top of the $70 million raised by growers in the past six years.
“Mother Nature has not been nice to Florida citrus in the last 15 years,” said Michael Sparks, executive vice president and chief executive of Florida Citrus Mutual, the state’s largest citrus-grower organization.
The reduction in grapefruit-tree acreage in the past decade has been especially disheartening to growers. In 1996, the state was carpeted with about 139,000 acres of grapefruit trees; by the end of last year, it had 38,000. On the east coast of Florida, where most grapefruit are grown, the industry provides an annual economic benefit of more than $500 million.
“We employ a lot of people, and then there are the old guard, who have lived in Florida for generations, people you want to help,” said Doug Bournique, executive vice president and general manager of the Indian River Citrus League, which oversees the narrow, grapefruit-rich district stretching 200 miles from Daytona Beach to West Palm Beach. “For a while we were screaming and screaming and got no love, and now everybody wants to help.”
For that reason, he and the growers say, they are hopeful the industry will recover. Bournique emphasized that the March bloom pointed to a crop that could be the best in years as long as hurricanes stay away.
The grapefruit here on the Treasure Coast, a few miles from the Atlantic Ocean, are sweeter and more succulent than those grown in other states and countries. About half of the region’s grapefruit are destined for processed juice. The rest are shipped out fresh, the vast majority exported to Canada, Europe, Japan and, increasingly, South Korea, where people love premium grapefruit.
Tending to their groves up and down this section of coast, the citrus growers who remain are hardy survivalists. Many are from families that have been in the business for generations.
“This is not a hobby,” said Mike Garavaglia, as he recounted the monumental efforts that he and other growers had made to beat back disaster, including propping up warming tents around trees to stave off greening. “When you make a decision to plant a tree in the ground, it’s a 30- to 40-year decision.”
Canker, which hit Florida especially hard in the 1990s, flew in most recently in a suitcase from Asia, Bournique said. A passenger brought a wood cutting from her homeland and grafted it onto her Florida grapefruit tree. Made airborne by the wind, the bacteria skittered up the state, damaging hundreds of millions of grapefruit. In 2004, two hurricanes spread the disease to uncontrollable levels, and canker remains today.
At the same time, a previously published medical study that concluded that grapefruit could cause side effects in combination with certain medicines, including blood-pressure drugs and some statins for high cholesterol, gained traction among doctors, pharmacists and grapefruit lovers.
Suddenly, doctors and pharmacists were telling many older people, who tend to eat grapefruit most frequently, to stop eating it. The industry battled back by publishing lists of the specific medications involved, but with more people taking statins, grapefruit sales to older people sagged.
“It’s a real phenomenon,” said Dan King, director of scientific research at the Florida Department of Citrus. “We’ve been very careful, but we have tried to reduce the horror stories and the alarm. There were these reports out there about people dying and being at high risk of tremendous harm, and nobody was able to establish evidence.”