Searching for OJ’s Killer

Searching for OJ’s Killer

Taste what happens when good oranges start going green

Carter’s Grocery at 15901 Orange Ave in Fort Pierce, Fla., sells diesel, gas, propane, fresh corn tortillas, white gumboots, hunting knives, neon fishing lures, five-gallon buckets of hydraulic fluid, fried chicken, rice, grits, mac n’ cheese, and delicious beef brisket with one side for seven dollars and fifty cents. On the store’s back wall, above the Formica lunch counters, hangs a stuffed boar’s head and a pair of posters with scantily clad Anheuser-Busch girls. Depending on the hour, you can find game wardens, squirming children and young couples, fruit pickers, or old-timers like Al Scott who run cattle and who will tell you Indian River used to be the grapefruit capital of the world. “If it weren’t for canker and greening,” he says, “everybody’d be in citrus.”

The citrus men roll in to Carter’s dusty gravel parking lot around noon. You can tell a citrus man by the scratches running the full-length of his silver Ford F-150 XLT pickup. The look: Cammo baseball hats, wraparound sunglasses perched on the brim, bloodshot eyes.

John Wuchte, aged 52, and C.J. Holley, aged 61, sit down with plates of fried chicken. Holley sprinkles salt. Wuchte goes for hot sauce.

“If what we’re seeing this year is greening,” Wuchte says, “we’re fucked. The percentage of the change is just…”

He pauses. Holley finishes his sentence.

“Astronomical.”

Two-thirds of the fruit up at Cow Creek is getting left on the trees. They’re not making Brix or ratios. Leave the little ones in the tree, Holley tells picking crews. Who knows what those fruits will do to next year’s crop? This has never happened before. Cut open a diseased fruit, and blech, it’s so bitter it might drive anyone to start dipping mint-flavored Grizzly long cut. Whoever finds the solution is going to be a rich man, they say.

Tody Wilder, their boss, walks in to Carter’s and sits down for lunch. His phone rings. He flips it open.

“If this is a sign of things to come, it’s only going to get worse.”

Mike Gomez, 48, of Fort Pierce, a field supervisor who loads 522s (trailers). 'I hope somebody come up with something because it hurts.'
CG Holley, 61. 'Last year, we packed out good. Now it’s just about done. A thousand acres.'
 Larry Black, 39, of Fort Meade, Florida, examines a diseased fruit.
Oranges, greening
    Credits: Peter Andrey Smith

    ***

    The contagion—known as citrus greening, huanglongbing, or “yellow shoot disease”—was first noted in 1927, by scientists working in the Punjab in what is now modern-day India and Pakistan. Mohammad Afzal Husain and Dina Nath described a “die-back” causing dry, insipid fruits. The two wrote, “It is not an uncommon sight to see once-valuable orchards reduced to unproductive plantations of dried skeletons of trees.” These skeletons began appearing in China in 1919, in South Africa in 1929, in Brazil in 2004.

    On June 2, 1998, two employees of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, an entomologist named Susan Halbert and her colleague Ellen Tannehill, noticed a key lime tree in Delray Beach with a moderate infestation of tiny six-legged insects known as the Asian citrus psyllid. Maybe a nearby store trafficked in surreptitiously imported lime leaves, or, more than likely, someone had brought the insects in multiple times on multiple different leaves or scions that, for whatever the reasons, made it past the Plant Protection Quarantine Inspection Station at Miami International Airport. There’s no way to know for sure; another theory posits that they blew over from The Bahamas.

    Within three years of its arrival in the land of fresh-squeezed orange juice and golden globes of grapefruit, the disease spread to every citrus-growing county in Florida.

    Seven years later—August 23, 2005—Halbert discovered the most devastating and dreaded of citrus diseases south of Miami: Ca. Liberibacter asiaticus, the deadly bacteria spread by the Asian citrus psyllid.

    The arrival of the ecological problem coincided with an economic one: As the housing bubble burst, groves snapped up for residential development, in anticipation of an avalanche of retirees, went abandoned. According to the latest available data compiled by the U.S.D.A., abandoned acreage totals 130,000 acres. These abandoned groves are now home to cattle and cowboys, feral hogs and bow-hunters from Wisconsin. These are places with cabbage palms and generation upon generation of tiny invasive psyllids.

    Within three years of its arrival in the land of fresh-squeezed orange juice and golden globes of grapefruit, the disease spread to every citrus-growing county in Florida. Tim Gottwald, a U.S.D.A. plant pathologist with short, spiky salt-and-pepper hair who has written extensively about the epidemiology, says the bacteria did not originate as a plant disease. Rather, it’s an endosymbiont, a bacterium that lives inside the psyllid and, for reasons still unclear, prolongs its 30 to 50-day life span.

    When the insect feeds on sap in a distinct head-down ass-up position, the bacteria slip from its mouth-parts into a tree’s tender, young flesh. Humans spread the contagion: We are the only reason the stowaways went global. Without us, the bacteria would probably only spread a couple miles each year. At times, huanglongbing crept through plant nurseries unnoticed. An infected plant can remain asymptomatic (a Typhoid Mary of trees) though the tree’s phloem eventually constricts and nutrients stop flowing. Within about nine months, the glossy leaves begin to turn yellow. Fruits drop to the ground. Seeds abort. Oranges look as if they’d gone bobbing in a bucket of green paint.

    Huanglongbing is a death sentence.

    ***

    In early February, I arrive at the Caribe Royale in Orlando, not far from Disney’s sprawling Magic Kingdom, where 446 scientists have registered for the Third International Conference on Huanglongbing. It is the largest of such gatherings to date. The researchers sit in long rows watching slide after slide of defoliated citrus trees, images of new varietals like GnarlyGlo that look like a sweet orange with an alligator hide, and pie charts depicting genomic analyses performed on the same computers physicists from the Large Hadron Collider use to model the universe. When the final slides go up, attendees hold cameras aloft like an eager crowd at a sold-out concert. Out in the lobby, there’s a cardboard box of seedy, ripe oranges with a sign, “Please!!! Help Yourself.”

    A better sign might have said, “Please Help!!!” The extent of the disease has made outright removal ineffectual in reducing infection rates. No known pesticides can kill enough insects over a large enough area. All of the conference attendees said they were eager to find solutions, whatever they might be. Harold Browning, head of the Citrus Research and Development Foundation, says antibiotic drugs, such as tetracycline and streptomycin, while promising (and a proven cure in the fight against lethal yellowing in Palm Beach’s palms) remained an unlikely solution because of their overuse on pig farms and in hospitals. A new generation of antimicrobials might be painted or applied like nicotine patches to the trees, though Browning said these substances were still making their way through trials (and not for prying eyes, given the sensitive issues with intellectual property).

    Over lunch of turkey and roast beef sandwiches, I meet Bill Dawson, a University of Florida scientist, with a pink shirt and mineral blue-eyes. Dawson believes a virus called Tristeza (“sadness” in Portuguese) that already infects citrus rootstock might be genetically modified to include antimicrobial peptides. That way when a tree becomes infected with the modified virus, it might also receive a kind of gene therapy to knock back the bacteria.

    The methods are feasible, he says, but no one knew whether they would be acceptable. Even if this virus is the Next Big Thing to beat back the huanglongbing dragon, the technology faces years of review by the U.S.D.A., the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Food and Drug Administration before any trees would be raised in psyllid-proof screenhouses and commercial groves. Would it be fast enough to save the icon of the American breakfast? Another paper presented at the meeting summarized the problem with biotechnology, the only foreseeable near-term solution, as such: The deregulation process is daunting and full of hurdles and the science may actually be the easiest and the cheapest part of the project. “It could be easy and cheap if we’re lucky,” Dawson says. “Luck is a part of science.”

    Outside the Caribe Royale, a wild turkey wandered around in the parking lot. A few attendees from the neighboring conference, the Mobile Air Conditioning Worldwide Trade Show, stared into their Blackberries. With no citrus and no clear solution in sight, I drove out to the groves to find out how farmers were faring.

    ***

    South of Frostproof, sunny and 73 degrees, with the smell of fragrant blossoms filling the tiny downtown, stands the Ben Hill Griffin, Inc. headquarters. White columns, a brick facade, the building is regal Southern estate/corporate office/country clubhouse. A plaque outside describes the company founder, with no apparent irony, Ben Hill Griffin, Jr., as a baron. Inside, an elevator delivers guests to the second of two floors. I meet Ben Hill Griffin III in a wood-paneled boardroom with paintings of hounds and a mirrored wall lined with shot glasses. Mr. Griffin, aged 70, wears a maroon shirt and a sports jacket and has all the executive trappings you’d expect from a citrus baron. He runs cattle, fertilizer and banking in addition to growing over 13,000 acres of citrus, the largest of 12 growers in Florida’s Natural Co-op.

    Mr. Griffin tells me he served as the president of Florida Citrus Commission during the canker epidemic. “You don’t hear about canker any more,” he says, “do you?”

    He pretends to tap his grandson, Brett, aged four, on the head—and says, “He’ll have it better off than I did.”

    Mr. Ben Hill Griffin III, 70 , of Frostproof, Florida. ('It’s freezeproof,' he says, 'more than it is frost proof.')

    On his Ben Hill Griffin, Inc. note pad, Mr. Griffin begins to write a message with a sharpened number two pencil. Then, he stops. “Fear is,” he says. He looks at the ceiling as if deep in thought. “Fear Is False Evidence Appearing Real. You can quote me on that. We fear greening. We got false evidence.”

    Mr. Griffin pages Donna and says, “Get me Mike Sparks.” Sparks is the head of Florida Citrus Mutual, the organization representing citrus growers and host of the international meeting on huanglongbing. “I got a reporter here,” he says to Sparks on the phone. “He thinks our industry is dead. You need to talk to him. Fear Is False Evidence Appearing Real. I’m real concerned about greening, but I’m not fearing it.”

    My next stop, nearly an hour away in Lakeland, sunny and 79 degrees, is the Florida Citrus Mutual building, once painted bright yellow with an experimental extract of grapefruit (according to John McPhee’s seminal 1975 book Oranges) but now, like everything else in the Sunbelt, it’s painted a tan-grey best described as taupe. Sparks is an enthusiastic man, bald, who wears a crisp white shirt and sits at a big wooden desk facing an oversized paper flip-chart with his lobbying agenda. (The last update, December 2012: “Unfortunately, nothing happening on our issue.”) He keeps four Asian citrus psyllids, encased in glass and dwarfed by a single penny, on his desk. “We like to show that something that small can be so deadly,” he says. In Sparks’ assessment, hundreds of scientists are taking a “Manhattan Project approach.” The citrus industry is prepared to lobby Washington to find the “AIDS cocktail,” an antibiotic solution, anything, he says, that might save 76,000 jobs and the $9 billion citrus industry. “Do you shoot it into a tree like a syringe? If that what works, that’s what we’ll do,” Sparks says. “If you reject technology, you’re not going to have oranges or enjoy fresh Florida-California orange juice. I’m not going to take a pill. I enjoy drinking orange juice.”

    At Peace River Packing Company in Fort Meade, Larry Black, aged thirty-nine, comes flying down a stairwell in a red plaid shirt and jeans. (He could be a model farmer on a Super Bowl ad were it not for the scratches running the entire length of his red Dodge 4500 and the lack of a cowboy hat.) He has degrees in citrus and business and operates a bustling fruit packing line.

    On the move, in the orange groves

    Photo By Peter Andrey Smith

    Black’s something of a compulsive cell phone checker. He drives me out to 50 acres he’s reset with a modern, efficient, high-density grove—270 trees per acre as opposed to the traditional 140. Besides the pile of grayish moon rocks at the phosphorus mine next door, it’s citrus as far as the eye can see. In 2004, he says this plot sold for two and a half times its agricultural value—$10,000 an acre—to a doctor from Ohio. Black brought it back into production a year and a half ago and planted a precision grid of thigh-high Mid-Sweets and Navels, orange scions grown on hybrid Swingle rootstock. By the time the grove matures, with three years of regularly scheduled pesticide applications, especially around the field perimeter, he’s hoping more fruit, earlier, will offset the inevitable losses that come with greening. In five years, he’s confident growers will be growing resistant scions and rootstock.

    “We’ll manage through this disease,” Black says. He hops out of the truck and lops off the end of a mutant, greened Valencia—an orange veering towards lime. Still, any juice coming out of these groves, he says, would taste just like sweet oranges. “Positive attributes will overwhelm greening.” Black’s sticking with it; his family’s been in citrus since 1858.

    Route 27 runs up the Ridge, the spine of the state, a hilly, rolling highway lined with cul-de-sacs and gated communities named things like Orange Grove, Elite Resorts at Citrus Valley, and Prince Orange Manor. The Ridge soars to some 240 feet above sea level and extends for a hundred miles. Before the ‘83 freeze, the sandy, well-drained soil contained the densest planting of citrus anywhere in the world. Today, it’s packed with contractors who arrive for a weekend auction in Davenport. On the lot: pile hammers, road wideners, skid steers, and crawler cranes. None of it, as far as I could see, was for farming.

    Further north, in a graying parking lot near a Home Depot and a Cracker Barrel in Clermont, are the offices for Uncle Matt’s, one of the state’s few organic juicers and, at about a thousand acres, its largest. Benny McLean, aged 70, climbs into a scratched Toyota Landcruiser and drives me down to Eddy Drive, a 160-acre grove he and his son Matt manage. Settled by Mary Eddy’s family after the Civil War, only a small patch of original land is left. It’s hard to imagine why anyone might think the dense, gray tangle of scrub oak would be a good place for oranges, much less a grove fighting off invasive psyllids and huanglongbing. “My dad always said, ‘Thank God citrus grows in spite of us, rather than because of us.’” McLean laughs.

    He finds me a ripe fruit and, with a sharpened field knife, removes its skin in a single, orange-peel curlicue. A classic Hamlin, sweet and juicy.

    A chalky substance dusts all of his trees and the clay hinders a psyllid’s ability to grip a leaf and sink its proboscis—and the deadly bacteria—into the flush. McLean also sprays out boron, releases parasitic wasps at the southeast corner of the grove, and lets wolf spiders feast, night and day, on psyllids. (When one entomologist dissected a spider stomach, he says, he stopped counting dead psyllids at a thousand.) McLean doesn’t deny the disease; greening has hit two rows of Valencia hard, but he says it’s not about organic versus conventional, us versus them. “The big question,” he says. “Is it something we’re doing or is it something we’re not doing? I think it’s something we’re not doing. We’ve got so far away from the chemistry, physics and biology of soil.”

    McLean finds me another Hamlin, unfolds his field knife, and peels a greened curlicue. The sour fruit reminds him of Tang. It reminds me of Tang without the sugar. Something is not right.

    “Even a Yankee could tell you that,” he says.

    And so I ask him, “Is there any future for the Florida citrus grower?”

    “I don’t know,” he says. “Come back in five years.

    Scanning electron micrograph of Asain citrus psyllid courtesy of El-Desouky Ammar and David Hall/ARS-USDA