Citrus greening, falling under the scientific classification Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus, and officially named Haunglongbing in 1995 at the International Organization of Citrus Virologists, is considered the most serious threat to citrus plants. The first reported epidemic was in 1919, by a south Chinese farmer. The citrus psyllid, the infamous insect that has and continues to spread the dreaded greening, was first recognized as a transmitter in 1967. For a bred citrus farmer such as Paul, signs of greening are perceptible on one branch of a tree, across the road. “You’ll see the yellow, or a dead branch. The tree reacts too slowly to the bacteria. It’ll stop circulating to one branch that’s been infected, but that can take a couple weeks. By that point, the bacteria are already in the roots. You know, it’s like AIDS almost; greening won’t kill a tree, but any other disease that may come along gets magnified and that will take it out, so it does ruin the tree, and it’s affected us greatly, but not necessarily to the extent some people think.”
Paul estimates 3% of yields lost to greening this season, down from the 20% the growers have seen in recent years. At 3%, a dozen or more fruit lay below any given tree, rendered inedible.
A third generation citrus producer, Paul’s family got its start in the forties, when his Grandfather, John I, sought to break away from the automobile industry. The family owned several Ford dealerships in the Northern Florida region. With two partners in tow, John Sr. purchased roughly 12,000 acres of land in Labelle, in 1968, initially divided among the group. Through time, different business interchanges, and ultimately market adaptation, Paul Citrus now operates roughly 10,000 acres, including a 5,500 acre spread in Labelle, another 300 acres less than two miles away, more in Lake Wauchula, with another 500 acres leveled and ready to be developed in Arcadia.
Paul spent two years in Bulgaria, where he served in the Peace Corps, before returning home to begin his own fruit hauling company, Car Two in 1999, while the groves were still managed by his father and uncles. His involvement towards the production, harvest, and sale of the crops transitioned to full time in 2007, and he officially took over the business in 2014 after the passing of his father, John II, more affectionately known as Jack.
Although native to Lee County, Paul assesses Labelle as the most difficult land to cultivate, of where his many properties lie. “Labelle is the hardest. There’s cheap water, but there’s so many different kinds of soil. This land used to all be white sand, and now you can see there’s some brown growing, and there’s some green growing. My grandfather’s philosophy was ‘water in, water out.’ You have rock two feet deep, it’s hard to keep the soil moist, it’s hard to keep the trees healthy. We have a solution to that. Instead of water in, water out, I keep the water there all the time, constantly pumping and circulating it.” Irrigation, another potential major issue for any grower, is more of an experimental topic for Paul. Standard irrigation, the drip method, involves laying rubber tubing on the ground running under the trees along a plot line. Acting as a less projected sprinkler, the water drips across the spread, top watering the crop.
The problem? This sort of irrigation can lead to both flooding and dehydration of the trees. By tubes not draining properly, a portion of trees in any set area can go without water until this low lying conflict makes itself apparent. A clog in the tubing can flood one tree, killing it, not to mention the excessive repair routine should a water pipe burst. Not only can extreme hydration or dehydration occur, but managing the weeds and roots that grow under the tree becomes unfeasible. “You can’t take a weed whacker or anything to cut down there, because you’ll bust the line. That’ll ruin it.” With two full crops on sub-surface irrigation, Paul already sees the difference in soil moisture, crop yield, and health of the growth. A well, located at the far end of one grapefruit crop, is in constant motion, pumping and circulating the water under the plants, at the roots, for level irrigation at all times. This also calls for more level ground, so as to avoid any build up. The additional perk to subsurface irrigation, is the resistance of crop freezes. Instead of traditionally flooding a crop before a freeze, subsurface irrigation keeps soil moist at all times, invalidating the need for last minute flooding.
Paul, the proud father of seven year old daughter, Beryl, ultimately seeks a more environmentally secured future for his daughter’s generation. Turned off by standard, chemically filled bug repellants, Paul incorporated non invasive methods to procure the oils from his citrus leaves to provide a healthier alternative for his daughter. “She’ll come out and we pick in the groves every year, singing. She likes it for about ten minutes, then she just wants to get back in the car and watch movies. Within minutes she could have ten or fifteen welts on her skin. I’ve always wondered how to get the scent from citrus too, and I learned that from this project too.”
Holding interests in environmental concerns spanning the board, Paul seeks to break into a more niche market. With several boutique buyers more than satisfied with the quality of production, the tallest hurdle is maneuvering strict regulations put on growers: standards of packing, and exporting product out of the state. These boutique buyers, who would rather package, juice, or label the produce on their own, are limited by state regulations mandating citrus shipped out of Florida must go through a packing house first. What could be boiled down to political battle, Paul seems able to separate the man made strife and stick to bettering his own company with a plan to one day operate his own packing house, while maintaining responsiveness to new revenue generators.
“We’re in survival mode, we have been for the last few years. Part of it is greening, a lot of it is pressure from outside markets like Brazil. But we’re trying to cut back our production, we want to refocus and reorganize. That way, we continue to scale and maintain quality. We have a forty year old grove that we’ll be leveling in the next few years, hopefully for another 300 acres of subsurface irrigation, or a solar panel field even. My father was more interested in the actual growing, and I am too, but I’m very interested in the business side of things, and finding better more sustainable energy and harvesting methods.”
Though a $9 billion industry, with almost 100,000 jobs accounted for, Florida still comes in second in citrus production to Brazil, which produces about 35% of all citrus globally. Florida produces about half of all U.S. citrus. Florida has close to 500,000 acres dedicated to citrus groves, and Brazil claims more than a million. However, even though Brazil essentially trumps Florida in harvest yield, the country is still consuming approximately 5% of U.S. citrus growth. “There are three main challenges: greening, the market, and labor. We’re put under a lot of pressure from countries like Brazil who still hold the majority of the market. They don’t have the same regulations and restrictions we have when it comes to selling. You know, once we hit the state line, moving our citrus becomes more challenging. Sometimes it’s almost easier to ship to Canada than it is Vermont. Growers and sellers in Brazil, and other countries, aren’t confined like we are.”
In an effort to achieve what may be considered vogue by many, Paul constantly strives for more organic methods, out of obligation felt to the potentially hundreds of thousands - if not more - that consume his harvests. “We’re probably about 80% organic. It’s not about marketing that, it’s about the quality of the product. People will overspray their growth with pesticides, insecticides, that’s harmful. You can kill your groves that way. We spray out of necessity.” His commitment to quality also stems from a more personal point, “It’s out of respect for my father and my grandfather, what they did, what they built, the hurdles they faced.”
With fifteen full time employees who help operate the land and manage transactions, Paul, Inc. employs an additional 150 seasonal workers between late November through May, varying depending on the earlier picks and longer setting fruits, such as Valencia oranges, which take around 14 months before they fully ripen. In the 1980s, John I was able to secure a contract with Tropicana, who to this day remains Paul’s number one buyer, claiming 90% of their total yield. With limited supply left to sell to other grocers, Paul still aims to eventually have a packing house on his property. “The goal is to produce more, and sell more, but there’s so many hoops to get through. It involves more than simply finding a third party buyer out of state, because I can’t just go out and do that.”
By Emily Morauski