$130 appropriated for national fight

Jose Silva begins his day driving from citrus grove to citrus grove across the Rio Grande Valley in his white pick up truck. In the scorching heat he manually inspects rows of citrus trees as the Certified Crop Advisor for Simplot Grower Solutions. But at the end of the day, Silva becomes one of the 600 citrus growers in the Rio Grande Valley tending to their crops.

To some, citrus may not be the first thing to come to mind, but the Rio Grande Valley is well known for being a profitable area for the Texas citrus industry. The 30,000 acres of citrus breaks down into 70 percent grapefruit groves and 30 percent orange groves. Texas sits behind only Florida and California when it comes to citrus. However recent figures have caused the industry to fall at stake, especially in the Rio Grande Valley.

“Each area has its challenges in the Rio Grande Valley,” Silva, a grower of 30 years said. “It’s not easy. I’ve seen perfect fields one day, then the next day they’re gone because of something.”

That “something” is different for every grower. From fruit flies to nematodes to droughts, the issue varies by season and location of the groves. For Silva, the lack of water from water districts is a huge factor, often times leaving him desperate. He believes it will only continue to get worse as the Valley grows, and hopes that something can be done.

As concerning as this is, it isn’t considered top priority. Instead, the industry has pushed their focus to a much bigger problem, one that every grower - both in and out of the Valley - have been dealing with for years. Citrus Greening Disease, also known as Huanglongbing (HLB), is the most destructive disease of citrus and poses a major threat for the South Texas Citrus Industry. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 98 out of the 109 trees tested last week in the Valley came back positive with HLB. In Florida, the disease - as well as the aftermath of Hurricane Irma - cost the state more than $4.5 billion in citrus production and 8,200 jobs lost from 2006 to 2011. For the first time since 1945, their market has hit its lowest point.

The greening disease has made a drastic impact. With Florida groves continuing to drop in numbers, Valley growers are left to wonder if they’re next, and if so, how hard will they be hit? The disease is spreading, but fortunately, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

On May 16, Congressman Henry Cuellar (TX-28) announced $130 million in federal funds to help U.S citrus growers fight drawbacks in the industry. A secured portion of the money is to go into health programs and HLB research to combat the disease. With the help of these appropriations and other research centers like University of Florida and Texas A&M, citrus growers can likely have peace of mind. However for some, being at the mercy of scientists is not easy.

“Unfortunately science is slow, and we need immediate answers,” Dale Murden, grower and president of Texas Citrus Mutual said. “Knowing what we know and what we saw happen to Florida - knowing we’ve got the disease - we have to be very concerned about it. If that’s coming here, we’ll be out of business.”

Murden has been tracking the disease since it first appeared in the Valley in 2008, although he suspects it was present years before that. He’s seen it slowly take the industry down, killing off acres and causing frustration amongst many citrus farmers. Because of the disease, Murden has become a voice for farmers in the industry, doing everything and anything he can to get help quicker.

Although Murden is especially thankful for the congressman’s recent efforts in helping Valley citrus, he admits that time is running out.

But HLB isn’t the only problem that should be taken seriously. Other diseases like Citrus Canker and pests such as the Mexican fruit fly, otherwise known as Mexfly, should be taken care of as well. Valley water districts need better infrastructure, and there is also the local issue of homeowners growing their own citrus trees, which not only hurts the industry but can also cause the spread of pests and diseases due to poor care.

The list goes on and on. Everyday, growers are faced with problems new and old, yet HLB is the only one getting more care. For many, it is important that each issue is dealt with, some earlier than others.

CEO and founder of U.S Citrus, Mani Skaria, agrees that problems vary between growers. Like Murden, he is nothing but glad the congressman dedicates time and money into the citrus industry, yet believes that more can be done.

“The growers need strategies.” Skaria explained. “This money helps a little bit, but it’s not a lot.”

Still, money and research is all that can be done. A form of antibiotics for HLB is currently in the works, according to Murden. In the meantime, Valley growers like Silva are left to deal with not only countless of other problems, but the disease that is slowly wiping out their business.

“Agriculture is tough, especially here in the Valley.” said Silva. “Anything can happen within a day or two here. It can be devastating.”

For some growers, devastation has already happened. Yet, the worst has still yet to come, and with that, Murden has only one request to keep it from happening: finding a cure as soon as possible.

“If we don’t find a cure or something that helps, there won’t be an industry in the United States anymore as far as citrus,” he said. “We’ll be bringing it in from somewhere else. My plea isn’t for more money. My plea is for scientists to use the money that we give them, get together and find the answer.”