PLANT CITY, Fla.—More than a century ago, Martha Sue Hawkins’ ancestors homesteaded on this flat land in central Florida. Her grandfather planted the first orange groves in the 1900s, and then her father added more trees as Americans started getting used to the idea of orange juice on their breakfast tables.
By the time Martha Sue and her husband Richard Skinner took over the property, they had 2,600 trees stretching out across 15 acres in neat rows, and made a handy profit selling the oranges to processing plants each year, which would make the fruit into juice.
But in 2012, the Skinners pulled up every single tree. Their groves had been infected by the Asian citrus psyllid, a tiny bug that carries a bacteria which attacks a tree's vascular system, eventually killing it. The disease, which showed up in Florida in 2005, has created a phenomenon known as citrus greening that is decimating the orange and grapefruit industries in the state.
Florida may produce as few as 89 million boxes of oranges this year, forecasters say, down 63 percent from the 242 million boxes the state produced a decade ago. In a state where citrus is on the license plates and 75,000 people made their living from it just a few years ago, this could have a huge impact. It’s not just growers like the Skinners who are feeling the pinch—citrus generates jobs for the companies that fertilize the trees, the people who pick them, the processing plants that make the juice, and the advertisers that figure out how to sell it.