Florida citrus growers are a tough bunch. They've weathered freezes, droughts and hurricanes.
They beat back citrus canker. Now, growers face their biggest threat ever: Citrus greening.
The bacteria are destroying Florida's citrus industry. A cure would be perfect, and it's coming. For now, growers are just trying to slow it down.
At the USDA lab in Fort Pierce, they are figuring out how to harness Florida's best natural resource – sunshine – to slow citrus greening.
They use mini-greenhouse tents heated with a solar panel. It's like a sauna for an orange tree. Dr. Yongping Duan is banking on thermal therapy to slow down the devastation citrus greening is causing.
The bacteria are transmitted via a Psyllid, a tiny bug. Together, they threaten to wipe out the state's citrus industry. Now, after years of research, Dr. Duan and others there believe that enough heat will introduce enough stress to slow or eliminate the growth of the bacteria.
"This is so far the only way in the field to mitigate the disease," Duan said.
Notice he said mitigate – not cure. He believes that doing this heat therapy can get a few more years of production by forcing it into remission.
The entire farm we toured was infected. A few rows over, another approach to thermal therapy was taking place. Rather than tenting and heating the entire tree, Dr. Gavin Poole's team is heating just the trunk with hot water.
The heat makes its way up the tree's circulatory system.
"We pump the system with water, and we wrap the trees," he said.
It's a newer process than tenting. The trick now is discovering how much heat, and for how long to help but not hinder the tree.
"It's not high tech," said Poole of the process. "I'm even following you. It's basic plumbing. Like the tents, this is a simple thing the growers could do themselves once we figure out the parameters."
Thermal therapy may be the best and most cost-effective way of treating citrus greening until something more permanent can be found to safely destroy the bacteria. Massive tents could heat groves, or massive coils could heat multiple tree trunks.
As they've said, it's not a cure, but it's designed to slow citrus greening down. The USDA is working on several things, including antibiotics and drug resistant trees. That's still a ways off, so it's a stop gap.
They now believe that citrus greening is in every grove in Florida at some level.
FOX 13 / WTVT-TV
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