Florida orange growers turn to hybrid fruits to combat 'citrus greening'

A recent USDA forecast predicts the smallest Florida orange harvest in more than 75 years

A bleak outlook for Florida’s orange industry has citrus growers looking toward a future filled with new orange varieties.

At The Orange Shop in Citra, a fresh fruit gift business, owner Peter Spyke is focused on that future. It’s why the third-generation citrus farmer is on a mission to help fight "citrus greening." The incurable, insect-borne plant disease has crippled Florida’s orange crop for more than a decade. 

A recent U.S. Department of Agriculture forecast predicts Florida will only produce 44.5 million boxes of oranges for the 2021-2022 growing season. It would be the smallest harvest in more than 75 years - orange juice prices could increase as a result.

Citrus growers warn "greening" is the biggest culprit behind the production decline.


"I remember seeing the first limb with greening back in 2006 in the most beautiful grove I had planted… now, it grows potatoes," Spyke said. "That sense of loss and grieving has already taken place, we’ve been down that road. and now it’s just another dead tree, so now we’re focused on the positive."

orange grove

Florida orange growers turn to new hybrid fruits to combat "citrus greening" (Stephen Goin / Fox News)

The positive: new orange hybrids with a natural resistance to greening and other plant diseases.

The world of citrus fruit is already filled with variety. All of the oranges we eat today are derived from different citrus combinations. But for years, Spyke has worked with the USDA and Florida universities to field test the citrus varieties not found in the grocery store. The citrus grower told FOX Business he previously helped the USDA test and release a new orange variety called SunDragon – he feels numerous other varieties could soon get approval for commercial production.

SunDragon orange

The SunDragon is one of many USDA orange hybrids resistant to "citrus greening." (Stephen Goin / Fox News)

"We don’t help them, we just fertilize and water them and let them grow," Spyke said. "I believe we’ll be planting greening resistant, very good-tasting trees within the next four to five years."

If orange producers embrace new citrus varieties, it could be a path forward for some, but it’s no cure-all. Spyke believes Florida’s juice industry, which makes up nearly 90% of the state’s orange production, will be slow to adopt anything that would change the iconic drink.

citrus farmer Peter Spyke

Third-generation citrus farmer Peter Spyke is on a mission to help fight "citrus greening."  (Stephen Goin / Fox News)

"If it affects the flavor of the juice and it’s not uniform, the processors won’t want it, a gallon of orange juice is a commodity," he said. 


Still, the demand for new citrus varieties among fresh fruit producers is high. The University of Florida has recently developed a mandarin variety, Gator Bites, that researchers believe could compete with popular brands like Halo and Cuties brands. In Spyke’s case, he said his work with citrus hybrids has kept his fresh fruit business thriving as others are squeezed out.

"In our case, we like to make citrus an experience, so we’re out here looking for these obscure or new varieties that you can’t get anywhere else … that's why people keep coming back," Spyke said.