'Yellow Dragon' threat could decimate citrus groves

TALLAHASSEE -- Florida's $9.3 billion citrus industry could be wiped out in just a decade if a virulent Chinese disease known as ''Yellow Dragon'' is left unchecked, the executive director of the state's citrus department told lawmakers Tuesday.

''If a cure is not found, production of citrus will fall off the map,'' warned Ken Keck, the Florida citrus department chief.

Keck told the Senate's agriculture committee that the citrus industry decided last year to divert about $20 million in advertising money to fund research into the disease, also known as ''citrus greening.'' But, he said, the industry needs more help from the state this coming budget year.

Keck's presentation added yet another dimension to the economic woes Florida faces. The housing industry is in collapse, record layoffs plague the state and the state budget already has a $2.1 billion hole this year.

Lawmakers plan a special session in the coming months to cut the budget and empty savings accounts to plug the hole.

But, like advocates for affordable housing or children's programs, Florida's citrus industry says the state needs to spend more -- or face bigger troubles later on.

Craig Meyer, the state's deputy agriculture commissioner, said the threat of the disease is serious.

However, his department believes the industry might be able to survive if researchers and officials figure out how to contain the disease, replant groves with specially grown disease-free trees and eradicate the bug that spreads the ailment.

When it infects a tree, the disease blotches citrus branches yellow in a dragon-like pattern, hence the name huanglongbing, which translates as ''yellow dragon'' in Chinese.

The disease is the third blow for a struggling industry.

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