The sprawling citrus orchard that Victor Story toured recently sure looked like a steal. For sale at $11,000 an acre, the investors who owned it were going to lose money, and potential buyers like Mr. Story might have stood to reap a handsome reward.
But as he bumped along the 40 acres of groves in a large SUV, Mr. Story was taken aback by the sickly look of the trees. Their leaves were an inch shorter than normal and yellowing. Full-size oranges were still apple green. Other mature oranges that should have been the size of baseballs were no bigger than pingpong balls.
"That fruit's never going to be of any value," said Mr. Story, 68, who has been growing fruit all his life. He said his pickers wouldn't even bother to reach for it. "It's going to fall off the tree; it's never going to get squeezed," he said.
What Mr. Story saw in the orchard in Polk County, Fla., wasn't an anomaly. It's the new norm in the Sunshine State, where about half the trees in every citrus orchard are stricken with an incurable bacterial infection from China that goes by many names: huanglongbing, "yellow dragon disease" and "citrus greening." Growers, agriculturalists and academics liken it to cancer. Roots become deformed. Fruits drop from limbs prematurely and rot. The trees slowly die.
The bacteria is spread by a tiny, invasive bug also from China, called Asian citrus psyllid. It acquires the bacteria while feeding on the leaves of infected trees, then transmits it when feeding on healthy trees -- akin to the way mosquitoes transfer malaria.
Psyllids were first detected in a Broward County, Fla., garden in 1998 and spread to 31 other counties within two years. The Asian strain of the bacteria was discovered in 2005 just south of Miami. The disease ruins the look and taste of the fruit but isn't known to harm humans.
Worldwide concern prompted 500 scientists from more than 20 nations to gather in Orlando, Fla., last February for a conference on huanglongbing.
Despite the fact that nearly $80 million has been poured into research on the disease, scientists still don't know how to eliminate the bacteria or remove it from trees.
Even those who are optimistic about a scientific breakthrough admit that if the infection continues unabated for another decade or so -- admittedly a worse-case scenario -- Florida's $9 billion citrus industry could be destroyed.
"What's at stake is orange juice on the breakfast table," said Michael Sparks, chief executive of Florida Citrus Mutual, a trade association. "I don't want to indicate that's going to happen next year. With a 10-year decline, your supply will reduce."
Researchers are exploring an option that could save the trees and their citrus, but also turn off consumers: engineering and planting genetically modified trees that are resistant to the bacteria carried by the psyllid.
Since the disease's detection in Florida City and Homestead, 90,000 acres of citrus have been wiped out. The high cost of spraying to kill off some of the psyllids is pushing some growers to the financial brink. The average cost of producing an acre of oranges is $1,800, nearly double what it cost in 1995.
"It's a huge amount of money," said Stephen Futch, a University of Florida extension agent. A 2012 analysis estimated the disease has cost growers $4.6 billion and resulted in the loss of about 8,000 jobs.
But consumers have felt only a subtle pinch, he said. "The [orange juice] container got smaller, not significantly, from 64 ounces to 59 ounces. That's a way to do a price increase without raising the price."