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Fruit in crisis: Florida's orange groves buffeted by hurricane, disease

Vernon Hollingsworth grew up in Florida among his family's orange trees, recently ravaged by a double whammy of disease and a hurricane that have sent juice prices spiraling and left farmers blinking in disbelief.

On a recent March morning, the fifth-generation farmer drove a pickup vehicle through the rows of his orchard, pointing out the devastation caused by Hurricane Ian last fall, including toppled trees.


"I lost 95 to 97 percent of my harvest," the 62-year-old farmer told AFP, adding, "we will need assistance to rebuild."


Yet, the hurricane is simply the most recent blow.


Since the year 2000, plantations in Florida, the second largest producer of orange juice in the world after Brazil, have been affected by Huanglongbing (HLB), a citrus tree disease.


A bacteria transmitted by an insect, the Asian psyllid, causes the illness, which causes trees to produce unmarketable, green, bitter fruit before dying within a few years.


The combined crises of Ian and HLB have wrecked havoc on an industry so crucial to Florida's identity that the orange is featured on the state licence plate.


According to projections from the US Department of Agriculture, orange output in Florida is down 60.7% from previous season, one of the lowest levels since the 1930s.


According to estimates from the University of Florida, the hurricane alone inflicted $247,1 million in damages to the state's citrus industry and $1,03 billion to the total agricultural economy.


The situation is especially distressing for Hollingsworth because the season seemed promising before Ian struck his 4,200 acres (1,700 hectares).


He had begun injecting his orange trees for the first time with two recently-approved bactericide medicines for combating HLB, often known as citrus greening disease.


This hurricane could not have struck Florida's citrus groves at a worse time, according to Hollingsworth, who observed that the orange trees may blossom and grow larger with the new drugs.


Today, his orchards, which employ approximately fifty full-time employees in addition to seasonal labourers, are facing a bleak stretch of months.


Earnings from one harvest are what make it possible to produce the next, but this year Hollingsworth has almost no income. He stated that insurance has not paid enough to repair the damage, and it will take four years for each replanted tree to give fruit.


In relation to the state of Florida or the federal government, he stated, "I'm doing my best, but it would be extraordinary if we could receive assistance."


"We are in dire straits at the moment."


Marisa Zansler of the Florida Department of Citrus, which governs the industry, stated that state officials are attempting to assist producers with tree planting.


The initiative is crucial to bolstering the citrus industry, which contributes $6.9 billion to Florida's economy and more than 32,500 employment, according to Zansler, director of economic and market outreach for the agency.


However, the price of orange juice in American supermarkets has soared, and Brazil is capitalising on the situation. According to official data, the South American powerhouse exported 240,000 tonnes to the United States this season, an increase of 82% over the previous season.


Hollingsworth states in Arcadia that he is not losing hope. He is confident that if he can overcome this slump, his future will be bright, especially in light of the latest HLB treatments.


According to him, it is the only option.


"I'm going to persist with this," he said. "I cannot perform any further tasks."

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