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Florida Citrus Farmers Abandon 'Grove Graveyards' In Battle For Survival


In Florida, an incurable disease has been killing orange trees and threatening the state's $10 billion citrus industry. The disease is called greening. It's spread by insects. It's tough, and it's expensive the fight. So once a grove goes down, sometimes farmers will just abandon it. But as Jessica Meszaros of member station WGCU reports, these grove graveyards can make the situation even worse.

JESSICA MESZAROS, BYLINE: James Paul is a third-generation Florida farmer. He drives his pickup through some of the 2,000 acres of orange groves he owns here in Hendry County, east of Fort Myers. On either side of this dirt road are rows upon rows of leafy green trees, oranges hanging from their limbs.

JAMES PAUL: This is the Grove right here. This is the one that I'm continuing to cut back.

MESZAROS: Paul says about a quarter of his groves can't grow fruit anymore. They're infected with citrus greening. He pulls up to a cluster of shorter, thinner trees with no oranges.

How does this look different than the other groves that we were driving through?

PAUL: It's just weaker. You can see the trees don't have the dense foliage. Look at this tree right here. I mean, you can see completely through the tree. There's hardly any fruit set on this tree. I mean, this tree right here is not going to - it's not going to do much at all.

MESZAROS: Paul spent the last four years trying to salvage this orange grove from the disease. He used different soil experiments and insecticides, but he says it just costs too much.

PAUL: Some of this stuff is just not worth it. You know, I can tell. It doesn't matter how much I spend on this grove. It only gets to a certain point. It doesn't get any better.

MESZAROS: This is what growers across Florida are dealing with - either sink more money into fighting the disease, find something else to do with the land, or just walk away. The Florida Department of Agriculture says growers have abandoned about a 130,000 acres of groves.

CALLIE WALKER: We have seen a large exodus out of the industry, unfortunately.

MESZAROS: The department's Callie Walker says the ghost groves left behind are dangerous. That's because citrus greening is spread by an insect called a psyllid, and they thrive in these uncontrolled areas. Walker treks through an abandoned orange grove in Hendry County. The property has not been mowed in months. The grass is really tall. Out of place plants have sprouted up between rows of mostly dried out orange trees.

WALKER: It's hard to see it. You never get used to it because you know that somebody's livelihood is gone. You know, you are seeing the loss of an iconic industry to the state of Florida, and it's heartbreaking.

MESZAROS: Soon, the state ag. department will shred these trees, turning them in the wood chips to rid the property of citrus greening. This is part of a federally funded program to remove abandoned groves when growers cannot afford to do it themselves. Some farmers, like James Paul, are finding new uses for their land. He wants to plant blueberries or peaches or may even raise cattle. But his real love is raising citrus and saving the groves he has left.

PAUL: Those are the ones I make sure are right at the end of the day before I go home so I can actually sleep at night.

MESZAROS: Paul vows to keep fighting citrus greening, trying different nutritional plans and testing grove samples. He can afford to do this, but for some, this isn't an option anymore. They're done. For NPR News, I'm Jessica Meszaros in Fort Myers, Fla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jessica Meszaros is a reporter and host of All Things Considered for WGCU News.