By Peter Chaires
There are times when this column seeks to illuminate issues that might not be on the front burner of the collective industry consciousness. This is one of those times.
Hurricane Ian’s destructive landfall and its unfolding impact on the industry will capture headlines for some time. The devastating impacts of HLB on citrus growers is highly visible, personal and remains a part of every coffee shop conversation in the citrus-producing regions. The loss of processing and packing capacity has changed the footprint of the industry. HLB research programs and field trials are highlighted at every seminar, convention and industry gathering. Yet the impact of HLB on citrus nurseries seems to be relegated to the back burner.
NURSERIES CRITICAL TO INFRASTRUCTURE
Citrus nurseries are a critically important component of the industry’s recovery formula. No matter the source and discipline of the incremental or ultimate HLB solutions, it will mean very little without nursery capacity with which to restore citrus production. As production costs have escalated, and grower confidence has waned, demand for citrus trees is unstable. Some growers are struggling to maintain their existing plantings, forestalling consideration of new purchases.
To further exacerbate the situation, a high percentage of tree orders already in the production process have been cancelled. There are many reasons that this occurs, but the nursery is left with large inventories of trees, unrecoverable costs and little opportunity to find the trees a new home.
The development and release of new citrus rootstocks represents opportunity and a chance to return to profitable production. New rootstocks also create confusion and uncertainly for growers as they seek to plant the very best rootstock/scion combinations. It takes time for nurseries to build up supplies of rootstock material. No sooner is one rootstock ready to go, than a new brighter and shinier rootstock emerges on the scene. It’s a moving target that requires the nurseries to anticipate demand before the growers know what they want.
DIVERSIFICATION IS KEY
How have nurseries navigated these turbulent times to remain viable? Diversification. Here are a few examples of ways that citrus nurseries are diversifying their production:
- Producing citrus trees for the dooryard market. Some of these trees are sold directly to consumers, while others are sold through retail nurseries and garden centers. University of Florida has been considering several varieties that can serve this market. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has several public domain releases that also may be good candidates for the dooryard market.
- Producing exotic, hard-to-find citrus varieties for high-value markets. Some of these varieties might not achieve wide-scale commercial success, but they can be lucrative with hobbyists and fruit enthusiasts.
- Producing plants for alternate crops or emerging markets. This includes blueberries, bamboo, peaches, eucalyptus, etc.
- Producing varieties for the Florida and Georgia border counties. This is a small but growing market.
- Producing ornamental plants.
These new markets are improving the bottom line for some nurseries, keeping them in the game and maintaining the valuable propagation capacity that will be needed down the road. Their struggle is real and relevant, but the innovation and tenacity of this industry segment knows no bounds.
Peter Chaires is executive director of the New Varieties Development and Management Corp.