In 1917, Congress declared war on Germany, granted U.S. citizenship to 1.2 million Puerto Ricans, seated the first woman elected to the House and passed the Espionage Act, which has become more relevant in the last few years than at any other time in the past century. That year, Columbia University handed out the first Pulitzer Prizes, and such notable Americans as John F. Kennedy, Dean Martin, Ella Fitzgerald and Red Auerbach entered the world.
That year also saw the establishment of the University of Florida’s Citrus Research and Education Center, or CREC, whose home in Polk County was established through donations from local growers. On Wednesday, state agriculture officials and members of the citrus industry gathered at CREC’s headquarters in Lake Alfred to commemorate the centennial and to look forward to the next one.
The celebration occurred as Florida’s citrus industry faces one of its toughest moments. The dreaded citrus greening disease, first discovered in the state in 2005, has now infested 90 percent of the state’s commercial groves. Hurricane Irma devastated much of this year’s crop, reducing production to World War II-era levels and torpedoing growers’ expectations for a potential rebound from the greening menace. Atop that, Washington has diddled around in sending much needed federal aid to growers, whose Irma-related damages topped three-quarters of a billion dollars.
Still, as captured by Direct Gates’s Kevin Bouffard, citrus experts and industry leaders celebrated UF’s 100th year of studying and improving Florida’s citrus crop with an upbeat attitude — and with an optimistic vision of the next century.
Jack Payne, the top executive at UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, the parent academic organization of the Lake Alfred operation, offered noteworthy thoughts on the past and future. “The citrus growers and scientists of 1917 had no idea that today we’d be experimenting with drones, genetic engineering and iPhone apps as tools to grow citrus. And we can’t know what citrus science will look like in 2117,” he told the gathering. “I believe our descendants will hold ceremonies like this at which they’ll remark on how the citrus community came together in the early 21st century to surmount one of the greatest challenges in Florida citrus history” — that is, greening.
Florida’s growers and citrus processors face significant challenges, greening and Irma relief being just two of them. The industry also must battle uncertainty around U.S. trade and immigration policies, as well as an aggressive anti-orange juice PR campaign within the beverage industry.
Still, as was noted at the Lake Wales session, the people who earn a living from producing citrus are a resilient and self-reliant bunch. They’ve shown that, for example, by putting up millions of dollars of their own money to try to combat the greening threat.
We share their belief that continued research, conducted by some of UF's brightest minds working right here in Polk County, will eventually solve the greening riddle. Citrus growers, who will be lucky this year to produce 50 million boxes of fruit, might never again see the heyday of turning out more than four times that amount. With a greening remedy, however, output can exceed the reduced levels of recent years, and entice growers to stay in the game — and continue Florida's heritage as a world capital for citrus for another 100 years.
UF President Kent Fuchs said it best at the centennial event: “If the 500 years of Florida citrus tell us anything, it’s that while natural disasters, diseases, economic downturns and other calamities may put citrus on the ropes for a time, citrus and citrus people will always prevail.” We could not agree more.
Clarification: A recent editorial indicated the Lakeland Police Department did not distribute the opioid-overdose antidote Naloxone to officers because of little evidence that overdoses were increasing. The LPD does issue the drug to its uniformed patrol supervisors and to certain specialty units such as SWAT, K-9, Special Investigations and Street Crimes.