MERRITT ISLAND, Fla. (AP) — From a 2-acre plot on north Merritt Island, Steve Crisafulli looks at rows of orange trees, searching for a glimmer of hope for Brevard's dying citrus industry.
Crisafulli — a Merritt Island resident whose last name has been synonymous with the citrus business for five generations — has given over this small grove on his family's land for a U.S. Department of Agriculture experiment that he prays will unlock the secret of a more disease-resistant orange tree.
The test grove contains about five different varieties of citrus trees planted in combination with about 10 different root stocks. The goal is to determine which combinations work best.
The Crisafullis view the USDA project as perhaps the last-ditch effort to stem the painful, long-term downturn of the citrus industry. Citrus production in Florida has dropped 59 percent since the 2008-09 season.
Production plunged even more in Brevard County, by 87 percent. And, recently, two of the area's last traditional citrus retailers — Harvey's Groves stores in Rockledge and West Melbourne and the Policicchio Groves retail store on north Merritt Island — announced they not open their stands for the 2017-18 season. The companies will keep operating their mail order businesses.
For some, the closing of these iconic roadside attractions is a bittersweet reminder of an older Brevard, a sleepier community before the rumble of rockets, when citrus was king and a muck-free, crystal-clear Indian River teemed with sea trout and manatees. Sorting warehouses dominated the landscape on U.S. 1, and trucks filled with pungent fruit plied the roads.
Now, some of those warehouses are crumbling derelicts, as diseases like canker and citrus greening — and hurricanes — have hit the industry hard. Many growers decided it was more lucrative to sell their groves to developers to transform them into residential subdivisions, rather than continue growing oranges or grapefruits.
And a looming question is where to buy the renowned orange and grapefruit juice that only comes from Indian River-grown fruit?
Indian River citrus has always been world-renowned for its quality and still is, albeit with a deeply declining production — if you can find it.
Even longtime local citrus growers like Crisafulli and Frank Sullivan of Cocoa say their families now buy their orange juice at the grocery store. But it's not nearly the same as the fresh-squeezed juice.
"None of it really measures up," Sullivan said.
"Nothing is as good as the real thing," he said with a grin.
Thinking about the citrus industry's downturn, Crisafulli says: "I think it's sad, because it's an identity not just for Brevard, but the entire state."
"Along the river, on both sides of the river, and certainly all of Merritt Island, was nothing but citrus groves," Sullivan said. "There were 9,000 acres of citrus inside NASA," referring to the sprawling federal reserve that is home to the Kennedy Space Center.
That land was "some of the best growing land in the state" for citrus, Sullivan said.
The downturn didn't happen suddenly. Florida citrus production peaked in 1997-98, when 304.45 million boxes of oranges, grapefruits and other citrus were produced. By 2016-17, that figure dropped 74 percent to 78.13 million boxes. The latest projection for the current 2017-18 season puts expected production at 54.65 million boxes. Each box would weigh 85 to 95 pounds, depending on the type of fruit.
Sullivan, who is in the third-generation of his family in the citrus business, traces the local industry's problems back even further — to the devastating freezes of the 1980s.
"That took a lot of citrus out. Then, there was the disease," said Sullivan, who no longer grows citrus, but continues to operate the Sullivan Victory Groves citrus mail order business on U.S. 1 in Cocoa.
Sullivan and other citrus mail order businesses in the region coordinate their purchase of citrus for resale from a handful of remaining local growers, including one in Scottsmoor.
"It facilitates buying the best fruit" that's available at any particular time, said Sullivan, who also is a former Canaveral Port Authority commissioner. "We go wherever we can get it."
This is a peak season for the mail order business, as many people want fresh fruit ahead of the holidays.
Even with the thinning of the citrus industry in Florida, Doug Bournique, executive vice president of the Fort Pierce-based Indian River Citrus League, said he is hopeful growers in Brevard will make a resurgence in producing oranges and grapefruit on the Space Coast.
Calling the Crisafullis, Harveys and Sullivans "rock star" growers of Indian River fruit, Bournique believes researchers are very close — maybe within two years — of "cracking the code" when it comes to ending citrus greening — a disease, also known as "yellow dragon disease" — that severely damages and discolors the fruit and eventually kills the tree.
Once the code is cracked, Bournique believes citrus will stage a big comeback in Brevard and elsewhere in Florida.
It's not just the fruit and juice that's enticing growers, but the Indian River citrus byproducts that are finding their ways into soaps, shampoos, beer, spirits and many other areas. The products often carry on "Indian River" citrus on the label, and it's an entirely new market to exploit that wasn't available 20 years ago.
"It used to be growers would simply use it for livestock feed," Bournique said. "The byproduct market that wasn't there 20 years ago is there now."
Sullivan thinks back to the time when Brevard County's population was relatively small, but there were a dozen or more citrus packinghouses in the area.
"And it seemed like everybody who had 20 acres has a little fruit stand," Sullivan said. "When U.S. 1 was the only route going from the north to Miami, everybody had a fruit stand."
Sullivan said much of his family's citrus acreage was on land that now is part of Kennedy Space Center.
Historically, Sullivan said, most of this region's citrus has been used for juice, with much of the remaining fruit used for the holiday gift fruit business.
Referring to the industry's decline, Sullivan said: "It's discouraging, but we haven't give up hope. New varieties are showing signs of resistance to diseases. Farmers are always optimistic. We just have to work a little harder doing what we do."
"Obviously, it's a very unfortunate time in the industry," Crisafulli said.
While disease has played a role, so has the weather.
"Mother Nature has her time, and she's had a say in where we are today," Crisafulli said. "Whether it's freeze, flood, drought, heat or cold, we're also dealing with disease, and that's a challenge that we'll continue to have."
Hurricane Irma, for example, impacted the industry in two ways when it passed through Florida in September, Crisafulli said. The high winds blew fruit off the trees prematurely, decreasing this year's crop. But, more significantly, if an orange grove is flooded and water sits on a tree root for more than 36 to 48 hours, it can kill the trees for good, he said.
"The storms were the straw that broke the camel's back" for the remaining retail stands, Crisafulli said. "It's very unfortunate."
The Crisafulli family now is using much of its former citrus land for other business interests, including residential development and as cattle grazing land.
Still, Crisafulli said, he and others in the industry are not ready to abandon the industry.
"Looking forward, looking to the future, we're certainly not going to give up," said Crisafulli, who is a former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives. "Farmers are a resilient breed. If it wasn't for farmers, we'd be eating grass next to the cows. So it's certainly a time where we have to pick up and look for the future and look for the opportunities that are before us."
Crisafulli said his 2-acre site on north Merritt Island is part of a widespread efforts involving USDA and state researchers to develop new breeds, new varieties, new root stocks and new places to plant citrus throughout the state.
"I will certainly say that we're not going to give up. There are opportunities for us," Crisafulli said. "The sad thing is the mom-and-pop operations will have a harder time enduring this period. And you're going to see the larger corporations are going to continue to move forward and try to find opportunities to grow in this industry. We're certainly interested in the future of what citrus holds."
For his business, part of that future could be an orange variety being called the "Crisafulli navel" that has been developed over the last several years.
Crisafulli said, while some of the issues may be unique to Florida citrus, the agriculture industry in general constantly has obstacles to overcome.
"Farmers have that, whether it's citrus or corn or wheat or whatever it might be," Crisafulli said. "There's always going to be challenges. And we're certainly going to fight to the end to try to make sure that we can preserve this great industry."
Information from: Florida Today (Melbourne, Fla.), http://www.floridatoday.com