It gets stuck in the leaves, becomes starch and messes up, well, everything. Once a tree is infected, there is no cure. You can rip it all up and start over; but unless the neighboring grove follows suit, and the one next to that, and that, and that The best fruit is toward the center of the tree. Adam almost disappeared inside of it, moving through the leaves with the instinctive ease of an animal. The concessions were many. They built a greenhouse for tomatoes and lettuce. They planted pomegranate and peach trees and bushes of blueberries, farmed kale, broccoli and turnips. It took five years for Adam to persuade his grandfather to put in an ice cream machine, and they sold novelty orange cones for a few dollars apiece.
They tried cutting down on herbicide and fertilizer. They turned off one of the two fans in the juice room. Then they started laying off staff. That was the hardest part. Researchers had ideas about experimental rootstocks and fertilizer regimens. Those efforts would allow trees to survive years longer and produce fruit as sweet and orange as they had ever been, as an HIV-infected person can now live for decades. The Burchenals said yes. They had nothing to lose. He helped plant new rootstocks and tried different fertilizers and spray programs. Mike tested something called Aqua-Yield, which makes the nutrients so tiny that they can slip through the shrunken roots.
Farming is a game of patience. New trees take years to grow, to bear viable fruit. Sick trees need time to get better. Bill had high blood pressure and a tricky heart. A cold would put him out for six weeks. Ken moved back from Austin to help on the farm and look after his mother. Adam and his father realized this would be their last season. The fruit started coming in November.
On one stretch of land, they grow orange trees under screens to keep out the Asian psyllid. Before greening came, Grosser was trying to develop oranges better-suited for not-for-concentrate juice. Now, he has been breeding sugarbells, a cross between a clementine and a honeybell.
They have survived degree winters, and he and his colleagues found that varieties tolerant of harsh environments do the best against greening. Or are they different somehow? Climbing into his truck, Grosser eases through rows of cybrids: oranges whose nuclei have been replaced with that of another species, like a grapefruit. This is the difference between immunity and tolerance. But they also recognize that cure could be decades off.
They know, for instance, that oranges with seeds are more devastated than those without. But ask them why they are so successful. There are 2, genes that they can play up or down and see whether the tree fares better. But which gene is the right target? Are there five targets? A Hamlin orange tree with the swapped-out gene is tolerant going on year six. But given the urgency of greening, given the decimation, UF has been doing things differently. It is recruiting growers as researchers. Beginning in the fall, and running through spring, UF hosts five displays of any trees in its pipeline that look promising.
Pete Spyke, a third-generation citrus grower and long-time citrus consultant, owns the roadside Orange Shop in Citra, 15 miles north of Ocala. The porch here is bundled with bushels of large, lovely fruit, almost technicolor in their orange hue. Spyke says greening is not a problem for him anymore. He was one of the first large growers to get involved with the fight against greening, traveling to China and South Africa on expeditions with scientists and other growers.
Spyke grew 30 different varieties, flooding them with fertilizer and water. He found the ones that worked: navel, Valencia, temple, page, nova, Minneola.
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He replanted more than once, bankrolled by the luxuries of money and time. The last one in Hillsborough tried to be, up until the end. Back at the store, Adam shook out his bag of oranges. They tumbled onto a conveyor belt, slowly rolling toward a dripping wall, layering them with a light sweater of soap.
The fruit came out the other side spinning, knocking into each other as they headed for an air dryer. The excess water became puddles below the machine, now emitting heat and a motor roar. Adam stood at one end of the machine, inspecting the oranges before their next spin. He picked one up, inspected it for a moment. Then wound up his arm and threw it over his shoulder.
He picked up another, and he threw that one away, too. The survivors were packaged and sent to Nashville, Tenn.
He picked through tomatoes. Some of their customers had been oblivious to greening. The out-of-towners seemed the most in the loop. The door swung shut behind him. Adam was not sure what would come next, for him or for the land. The best-case-scenario was to sell to someone who wanted to make a go at oranges. But who would be crazy enough to do that, he wondered. Maybe the beekeepers who leased some land for their honey would want it.
Or someone else who would keep this place rural, when so little else in the area still was. Adam walked into the little office building he shared with his dad and the few remaining staff. The two of them were so similar, he said: Both shaped like blocks, both hard of hearing, the same-sounding whistle. The thought was crushing, he said. Even worse than the disease.
They would lock up the store at the end of the season, probably June 2. They would hold a goodbye-barbecue for their customers. Sell what they could of the equipment at an auction. Meet with buyers, until it was done. And there was one more thing. Deep in the farm sits that pile of dead trees so high and long that it takes several minutes to walk around it and a craned neck to see the top properly.
These are the skeletons of all kinds of orange trees, most of them killed by greening. There is not a leaf on the bone-like branches, only weeds poking through them; no life except for the ants belly-crawling from soft hills. Sometime during the rainy season, Adam and his crew will paint the pile with diesel fuel, and throw a match on top.
They will burn it all down, back to the soil. The bonfire will take all afternoon. And there in the flames, for one last time, the trees will be orange. Times photographer Gabriella Angotti-Jones contributed reporting. The St. Pete native taught tens of thousands of others how to be better dentists. Where do you find batteries after all the big stores run out? Seasoned Floridians told us their secrets for getting through storms. Sections Subscribe. Log In. Log Out. Home Page. Special Reports. Photo Galleries. By Lisa Gartner May 23, Click to share on Facebook.
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