Rick Kress’ timing was perfect. After a long, successful career in the food industry up north, he decided to take on the position of president of Clewiston-based Southern Gardens Citrus in September 2005 — the same time citrus greening disease first hit Florida.
Citrus greening is also known as Huanglongbing, HLB or yellow dragon disease. It’s a bacterium spread by a tiny insect called the Asian citrus psyllid. Not only has Florida citrus been affected; greening also has been detected in California, Texas, and Louisiana.Georgia and South Carolina The diseases has spread at such a phenomenal rate in Florida that growers such as Kress are considering battling it in ways never before considered previously. Nearly all point to genetics.
“I’ve been asked if we could find another solution besides genetics, would we accept it?” Kress said. “Naturally. We need a solution. But every researcher in the world who’s involved with this disease has taken the position that genetics will be the ultimate solution. So if that’s the case, we’ve chosen a path of various projects in different forms that could ultimately include going in that direction.”
As soon as Kress learned that the greening disease was confirmed in Southern Gardens’ groves, he kicked off a four-pronged plan: research, a regulatory component, an agricultural program and a consumer-directed approach. “By 2006, we had a plan in place for the various research approaches we wanted to take,” Kress said. “As that whole research process evolved, we began working on the other three areas. Actually, it isn’t just Southern Gardens involved with this work; it’s the whole industry in all of the affected states. The research continues to move forward. We have field trials in place. We’re working with regulatory agencies, we’re developing an agricultural plan, and we’re learning how to approach it on the consumer side,” he said.
The process has been a long one. Thousands of trees have been destroyed. Pesticide spraying has expanded. Florida growers embarked on a worldwide search for a tree that would have a natural immunity to the disease. A potential last chance is to alter the orange’s DNA with a gene from another source, which the growers knew could more than likely face objections from consumers.
Kress points out that genetic modification has received a lot of attention lately, ranging from negative to supportive. A recent New York Times article, however, went into great detail about industry research and perceptions of genetic modification. Kress told Times reporter Amy Harmon that several researchers had been working on the problem and that the plan had always been to ultimately narrow the field to the one that worked best over time. Because the disease is spreading faster than expected, the research has had to go into overdrive. Approaches included fighting the bacteria with a virus, inserting a gene from spinach into trees, and a synthetic gene was considered.
“We’re at a point now where we don’t have an immediate solution,” Kress said. “The disease is very widespread in the Florida citrus industry, and it’s having an impact on the fruit quantity, on business, on costs. We have to find a solution. We believe as an industry we will.”
Kress faces other challenges besides citrus greening. Those include a sugar issue. “Orange juice is being attacked for its natural sugar,” he said. “It’s not being separated from high fructose corn syrup or added sugar, so consumers are hearing a lot questionable information.”
He also identifies labor shortages as a problem, adding that all of Southern Gardens’ oranges are picked by hand and that having legal, dependable workers is always a worry.
“And we’re always at the beck and call of weather,” he said. “We didn’t get any damage this month when the temperatures dipped, but we have to get through March.” He also named consumption issues and price issues as concerns. “If you look at where the growing costs go up because of greening, that’s 40 or 50 percent. It puts a real strain on the business costs.”
But life is not all business for Kress. He’s been married to his wife, Pat, for 40 years, and has three children and 10 grandchildren. He enjoys gardening, building furniture and golf – when he gets a chance, he says.
Kress grew up in the food business. His father worked for Welch’s, where he found his first job. Relatives were in the dairy business, and he put in many hours working on the farms as a young man.
At this point, though, his focus is on when a solution to greening can be found and if so, will it pass all of the federal regulatory tests for everything related to food safety? And then, can the industry explain factually and carefully what they are doing and why? “We don’t want to start trying to educate the consumer using the wrong approach. There’s a lot of work to be done to verify what we’re doing.”
Kress remains positive and dedicated to the cause.
“We’re going to find a solution to the disease,” Kress said. “The Florida citrus industry isn’t going away. Florida orange juice is a quality product second to none. The industry won’t be what it used to be, but every industry changes.”