If you were counting the days until you could buy elusive, super sweet HoneyBells off the back of a refrigerated truck, you’re out of luck.
Grocery store customers may still find the citrus hybrid of a Dancy Tangerine and Duncan Grapefruit, but the fiery orange, bell-shaped gems from Florida – available for only a few weeks every January – are in short supply this winter, as are navel oranges and grapefruit from Florida, due to a citrus disease that’s slowly spreading across the South.
The Tree-Ripe Citrus Co. of Johnson Creek had to tell its 43,000 customers across Wisconsin and northeastern Illinois that it won’t be delivering any Florida citrus this month, including HoneyBells and grapefruit.
The seasonal family business barely had enough navel oranges to offer customers in December, said Tom Paine, who co-founded the fruit truck business with his father, Gordon, 23 years ago.
The business makes deliveries in Wisconsin as far north as Spooner and Hayward, sending a delivery schedule by email so customers can meet them in parking lots to buy fresh-picked fruit off the back of refrigerated trucks. In July, they sell Georgia peaches picked two days earlier. In December, they sell fresh-picked Florida grapefruit and navel oranges. And in January, HoneyBells and grapefruit.
The Florida navel orange harvest is expected to be the smallest since the 1984-’85 season, according to the USDA Agricultural Statistics Board.
“Everybody’s being hit by (the citrus disease), whether they admit it or not,” Paine said.
A spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Citrus declined to comment on the disease Monday, and referred questions to a University of Florida researcher, who could not be reached Monday afternoon.
Grocery stores have a broad supply chain to procure fresh fruit from a number of states and countries.
Tree-Ripe Citrus Co. for all but one or two of its 23 seasons has bought what it describes as “gift-box quality” fruit from H&S Citrus Co. in Fort Pierce, Fla. It’s the best-fruit available, which loyal customers expect, Paine said.
“I’ve talked to other suppliers,” Paine said, “and they say they can’t produce enough, either. They’re all in trouble.”
Hybrid citrus varieties, such as navels and HoneyBells, are most affected by the disease known as citrus greening, Huanglongbing (HLB) or yellow dragon disease, according to George Brown, president of H&S Citrus, which has been in business 40 years. “It’s progressively getting worse,” he said of the disease.
Most of Florida’s oranges are juice-producing varieties, and they’ve not been affected as much by the citrus greening disease, Brown said.
Once a tree is infected, there is no cure. While the disease poses no threat to humans or animals, it has devastated millions of acres of citrus crops in the United States and abroad. It’s named for the green, misshapen and bitter fruit produced on a tree infected by a disease-carrying insect called the Asian citrus psyllid.