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Family must pay canker's toll

The state will have to destroy almost 48,000 trees to combat the spread of citrus canker.

Published June 10, 2005

[Times photos: Skip O'Rourke]
All citrus trees within 1,900 feet of this tree in Dooley Groves near Ruskin will have to be destroyed because of a citrus canker infestation. Dooley Groves will lose 22,000 trees total.
Citrus farmer Mike Houghtaling examines one of his infected trees Wednesday. His family has grown citrus since 1890. Houghtaling plans to be in Michigan when the burning of the groves begins.

RUSKIN - Mike Houghtaling can't bear to look at his citrus trees.

They look green and lush, but he knows by next week they'll be gone. Nearly all 22,000 of them - almost the entire grove.

Houghtaling's a big guy, 50, weathered, with a graying beard and ponytail. As a hobby, he races motorcycles. It takes a lot to shake him.

But his family has farmed citrus in Ruskin for more than a century, and he planted some of those trees on his hands and knees.

That's why he's leaving for a while.

"Getting the hell out of Dodge," he says. "I can't stand to watch them burn my trees."

In May, citrus canker was discovered on Houghtaling's farm, called Dooley Groves, along with neighboring Deseret Farms, and a handful of local mobile home parks.

Altogether, about 200 trees were confirmed to be infected.

But to contain the canker and prevent its spread, the state will force destruction of roughly 48,000 trees.

The toll could climb. On Thursday, the Division of Plant Industry confirmed it is investigating suspected cases in two other local groves.

The infestation, the first in Hillsborough County in several years, doesn't compare in sweep to epidemics in St. Lucie, Charlotte and Highlands counties, where nearly 2-million commercial trees have been destroyed since last August.

"The numbers we're finding (in Ruskin) are manageable," said DPI spokeswoman Denise Feiber. For a small farmer like Houghtaling, however, the outbreak is a disaster.

* * *

Citrus canker is harmless to people. But it rots 50 percent of the fruit in affected orchards.

Whenever the disease is discovered, the DPI acts quickly to contain it by clearing a 1,900-foot radius around each infected tree. That's the farthest distance, studies have shown, that wind-borne canker-causing bacteria can typically travel.

In Houghtaling's grove, 40 infected trees were found in a DPI tree survey.

That means that all but a few hundred of Houghtaling's 22,000 trees must be "pushed" out of the ground, dried and burned.

If each infected tree were strapped to a powerful bomb, the result would be the same: a wide circle of total destruction.

At Deseret, 150 of 233 acres will be cleared, according to citrus manager Jeff Haines. That's approximately 26,000 trees, he said.

Deseret Farms is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Haines said the farm's managers declined further comment.

* * *

When the hurricanes came last summer, Dooley Groves was spared.

Other groves were hard hit, up and down the coast, their trees uprooted. The Houghtalings pitched in to help their colleagues out, selling them fruit at cost so they would have something to sell while they replanted.

The Houghtalings thought they were lucky. But in a way, they have become victims of the hurricanes too.

Before last year's four-storm pummelling, the DPI's Feiber said, the state was close to eradicating canker, at least outside of Miami-Dade and Broward counties where it's most entrenched.

"We felt like we had everything under control," said Feiber. "Then the hurricanes came, and anything that was lurking (in the groves) got spread all over the place."

Mark Fagan, spokesman for the state's canker eradication program, said you can see the path of the last summer's hurricanes in the pattern of this summer's infected trees.

* * *

Now, the same colleagues the Houghtalings helped after the hurricanes are pitching in to return the favor, selling fruit to them to keep them in business.

By law, Houghtaling must wait two years to plant again on his cleared land. Then it will be another five years before the trees start to bear fruit, and perhaps another five before they make money.

Insurance will reimburse Houghtaling $23 per tree. A federal government program will reimburse him $55 per tree. But so many farmers have applied for reimbursement that the claims are backed up.

Houghtaling's father, Julius "Dooley" Houghtaling, says the farm might not replant. The land is worth a lot to developers, he said. The family has had some offers.

Mike Houghtaling won't hear of it.

"We've been here since my great-grandfather planted his first grove in 1890," he said.

His wife, Diane, worked at the farm as a child, when Mike's grandparents ran the place. His daughter and son were married here, in the grove.

"I wanted to pass this on to my children," he said on Wednesday.

"He's going to stay here if he can," his father said.

* * *

On Thursday, workers operating heavy machines started pushing Houghtaling's trees out of the ground.

He drove out to see it. He can't talk about how that felt.

"It hurts," he said shortly.

On Sunday, he'll take off with his family. They'll drive up to Michigan. Houghtaling has a motorcycle race up there he's looking forward to.

They won't come back until the burning is over.

"For 33 years, I get up and know what I have to do in the grove today," Houghtaling said.

"Now, I get up and go through the motions of checking to see if it will rain. But it doesn't matter any more. It doesn't matter if it rains or not."

--S.I. Rosenbaum can be reached at or 813 661-2442.

[Last modified June 10, 2005, 01:10:11]

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