An article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal explains how falling land values may be contributing to the spread of citrus greening and other menaces to Florida crops:

As if the real-estate bust hadn’t wreaked enough havoc on Florida, farmers say abandoned lots left behind by would-be developers have become a breeding ground for a plague that is killing thousands of the state’s orange trees.

A type of tiny lice known as the Asian citrus psyllid has made its home in the orchards, spreading a disease known as citrus greening, or yellow dragon disease, which causes trees to produce shriveled, bitter oranges before killing them. Since being spotted in 2005, the disease has spread to all parts of the state. And with no known cure, citrus greening is threatening to cripple a $9 billion-a-year industry that supplies 90% of U.S. orange juice.

In some cases, developers bought up citrus groves with plans to build on the land. When property values plummeted, those plans were put on hold. Now, abandoned groves languish unattended, allowing pests like the psyllids to spread unchecked and threaten nearby groves that still produce fruit.

Keeping the land also gives many absent owners the advantage of generous tax breaks intended for farmers. Land labeled for citrus use is assessed at about $2,200 an acre, compared with up to $20,000 or $30,000 an acre without that classification, said Marsha Faux, Polk County’s property appraiser.

The Florida Department of Agriculture’s Division of Plant Industry is mapping the state’s citrus groves to try to weed out developers taking a tax break for abandoned orchards.

The Journal notes that the department doesn’t have the authority to force landowners to care for their groves, but it can use the tax breaks as leverage.

Division of Plant Industry spokeswoman Denise Feiber says the department is combing the state to identify the abandoned groves (.pdf), which cover an estimated 143,000 acres, but the work is slow and resources are limited. Once a grove is identified, the department notifies the local tax assessor and tries to reach an agreement in which landowners take steps to care for the groves and prevent the spread of pests in order to keep their favorable tax status.

“We’ve made [it] a priority because there can be pockets of the disease,” Feiber says. “It’s a big concern.”

Citrus greening was first detected in Florida in 2005, and in recent years has spread north from South Florida, according to the Tampa Tribune.

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