This year was a real kick in the gut, said Adam Putnam, Floridas agriculture commissioner and a former United States representative, whose family owns citrus groves. It is now everywhere, and its just as bad as the doomsayers said it would be.
But there was good news this week, too. Coca-Cola announced it would spend $2 billion to plant 25,000 acres of new orange groves. The company, which owns Minute Maid and the Simply juice brands, will buy fruit from two growers in Florida one local and the other a Brazilian company that has invested in the state.
To see such a dominant player in the beverage market double down on the future of orange juice in Florida is a real morale boost to the industry and a sign they have confidence we will find a cure for greening, Mr. Putnam said.
Across the Wheeler Farms groves here in Avon Park and beyond, the evidence of greening is obvious on some trees. Leaves turn yellow, then fall off, leaving behind sparse foliage. That is often the beginning of the end.
The psyllids are thought to have arrived in Miami on cargo ships a decade ago, scientists said. And while the bacteria does not harm humans, it devastates trees, leaving behind bitter, misshapen oranges.
Greening has crippled citrus production around the world, including in Asia and Africa, researchers at the University of Florida said. A decade ago, psyllids were discovered in Brazil, which, with its abundant rural land, has tried to outrun the disease by removing countless trees and planting new acres.
Aware of the potential consequences, Floridas thousands of growers have aggressively moved to curtail its spread. They have spent $60 million over six years, money raised mostly from a self-imposed tax, to create a research foundation seeking to eradicate greening. The federal Department of Agriculture also has dedicated millions of dollars to the effort.
More money is coming. The Florida Legislature this month approved $8 million toward greening research, a record sum. And Mr. Nelson is pushing a bill in Congress to set up a research trust fund using money from a tariff on imported orange juice.
Florida is no longer alone in its battle against greening. The disease has spread to Texas, California and Arizona, where officials are anxiously watching developments in Florida. They are also joining the fight to speed up research.
Its worrisome that we are still three to five years away, even if we find a silver bullet, said Mark Wheeler, a grower and chief financial officer of Wheeler Farms, which owns 2,500 acres. We are to the point now that to stay alive in this type of environment you have to be on top of it 24/7.
As is, he said, some growers can lose 30 to 40 percent of what they pick in a given year.
Researchers are working on several tracks, among them hindering the insects reproductive cycle or its ability to transmit the disease, and developing resistant trees. But they are also advising growers on short-term options.
Now there is a real sense of urgency, said Michael W. Sparks, the chief executive officer of Florida Citrus Mutual, a trade organization for growers. We are not doing research to publish a paper but research we can get on the back of a tractor.
In Florida, growers have had to transform how they raise orange and grapefruit trees, a shift that has more than doubled their costs over the past decade.
Baby citrus trees must now be raised in greenhouses before they can be transplanted. And most growers douse their groves with a more powerful cocktail of nutrients and spray insecticide more frequently, which has helped slow the diseases progress. At first, they tried removing acres of full-grown, fruit-bearing trees in the hopes of eradicating the disease. That failed because psyllids simply flew over from neighboring groves that were either abandoned or not following the same costly regimen of fertilizer and insecticide.
James Graham, a professor of soil microbiology at the University of Florida who works with the grower-funded Citrus Research and Education Center, said next years harvest would be crucial. It will show whether this years statewide early fruit drop was an aberration a bad combination of quirky weather and greening or proof that the disease is truly entrenched.
Mr. Story, for one, is not giving up. He is scooping up groves that are for sale and plans on planting 300 new acres.
We think we can do it; we know we can do it, he said. We just need somebody to figure out how we can kill this bacteria in these trees.