The Evolution of the Citrus Industry

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My name is Dan Ritchie, and I am the President and CEO of Riverfront Packing Company. The packing industry revolves around having volume, and as volumes diminished, certain packing houses were struggling. All of us were, and we've collaborated with Mike Vigaravalia and the Rogers family, Rusty and Sid Banak, and come together for packing all three of our company's fruit under the roof of Riverfront Packing in a very collaborative way.

We had the advent of citrus canker, and part of the citrus canker protocol to survive was to burn trees that were infected. They determined trees were infected by finding a pencil point dot of a citrus canker lesion on one leaf. We took a 1900 foot radius from that one dot or one canker lesion on a leaf and burned every tree within that 1900 foot radius. That was the only way that was determined that we could eradicate citrus canker. So, in that eradication effort, we burned thousands of acres of grove to the point that we were actually eliminating the industry.

Along with eliminating citrus canker, the hurricanes of 2004 and 2005 caused citrus canker to spread beyond ever being able to eradicate it. So, it became endemic, and at that point, we just decided to stop the eradication program. The hurricanes also imposed upon us a loss of fruit and a loss of trees. There was some death, primarily everything along the river when we had the salt water come up from the river, it killed those trees.

Then, we had urban encroachment. Riverfront Packing is sitting on the corner of US-1 and 49th Street for a reason. The family owned everything from here to the river, and this is Riverfront Groves. Originally Scrant Harbor was all citrus; it was all groves. Orchid Island and Windsor were all groves. With the Leer in the Michael family over there now, there is not a grove, a viable commercial grove east of I-95 where there used to be plenty of groves east of I-95. They're just not here anymore.

And then we had citrus greening, which is the real issue. We're really struggling with that. When I was chairman of the citrus commission in the late 90s, we had 60 million boxes of grapefruit grown in the state of Florida. A box is 85 pounds, to give you a sense of size. Today we have four and a half million. So, clearly, the infrastructure that was built for 60 million boxes has collapsed, and there are only a few of us surviving to pack this volume of fruit that we have.

Greening is detrimental to grapefruit primarily because grapefruit is most susceptible to the disease. This is a bacterial disease that in essence, to keep it simple, it is a clogging of the main artery of the tree. What happens is the bacteria gets into what we call the phloem, which is the area where you have photosynthesis and the roots and the exchange of the nutrients. It chokes it off, so the roots start to die back first, and then you see the Asian citrus psyllid symptoms in the tree that are indicative of the disease. That is another disease that is clearly endemic. It is spread by an Asian citrus psyllid, a small insect. It carries the bacteria; it feeds on the leaf, flies to the next leaf on the next tree, and feeds on that leaf. There are a bazillion Asian citrus psyllids; we cannot control them, so they're all infected; they all have the bacteria. Every tree, arguably every grove in the state of Florida, is infected with greening. It's just a matter of time, arguably, that the tree will eventually die. We are doing all we can in therapeutic means to try to sustain this fraternity of trees while we look at some new combinations of rootstocks and varieties that seem to be resistant to the disease. Lemons, certain types of oranges, certain types of mandarin oranges, grapefruit, we don't really have an answer. There is one variety within the grapefruit scheme of things, Star Rubies, that seem to be resistant to the disease. We have no idea why. There's no explanation for it, but we're working with those to replant and to try to continue to have a viable industry, and we will. We will survive. This industry is never going to be what it was in my lifetime, but it will still be here; it'll just be different, not unlike a lot of things in the world. This industry was one of the major stools here. When you think about the economy of Indian River County, and you think about the year that Piper was on strike, baseball was on strike, and we had a freeze, that spring was pretty quiet around here. And you think about the icons in this community that were related to the citrus industry, starting from the north, the Kennedy family, the Rile family, the Graves family, the Green family, Smith family, the Barnes family, the Sextons, the Richardson family, the list goes on and on and on. I probably miss somebody of very high importance, but those families were some of the most giving families in this community when there was no other industry here. The United Way was still, is supported by those of us that are still in the industry, the education foundation. Dan Richardson, I think, was one of the starters of that. So, you look back at the history of this community and the not my generation, the generation before me that really gave back to this community, and the firm leg on the stool of our economy was citrus. It was really centered around citrus. That's not the case anymore. We've got diversity. We've got a lot of home building. We've got tourism. We've got different things going on that have stepped in to fill that void, but those of us that are still here feel very much a sincere desire to continue our role as contributors to the community in any way that we can.

Florida's Citrus Industry: A Tale of Collaboration, Greening, and Community!

In this video, Dan recounts how the packing industry encountered volume reductions, leading to collaborations between various packing houses to sustain their operations. The battle against citrus canker, an infectious disease, required drastic measures like burning infected trees to prevent its spread. However, this effort inadvertently caused the industry to decline significantly.

The hurricanes of 2004 and 2005 further compounded the woes, causing losses of fruit, trees, and even groves along the river due to saltwater intrusion. With urban encroachment on previously thriving citrus lands, the face of the industry drastically changed, leaving only a few surviving players.

The most formidable challenge faced by Florida's citrus industry is citrus greening, a bacterial disease that affects the trees' nutrient transport system. Grapefruit, in particular, has been highly susceptible to this disease, leading to a staggering decline in its production. The relentless spread of greening through the Asian citrus psyllid, an insect carrier, has made it pervasive throughout the state.

Despite the challenges, the industry remains resilient, with efforts focused on finding disease-resistant varieties and rootstocks. While the industry may never return to its former glory, Dan expresses confidence in its survival and evolution, adapting to the changing times.

Dan takes us on a nostalgic trip down memory lane, reminiscing about the prominent families that played significant roles in the community during Citrus's heyday. These families, known for their generosity and contributions, formed the backbone of the region's economy. While citrus may no longer dominate the landscape, the spirit of giving and community support endures.

Join Vero Heritage Center in exploring the rich history and indomitable spirit of Florida's citrus industry in this enlightening video. Discover the challenges faced, the resilience displayed, and the lasting impact on the community. Witness how the legacy of citrus lives on through the dedication of those who continue to contribute to the betterment of the community they hold dear.