“We expect it to be a full registration,” says Taw Richardson, CEO and president of AgroSource, Inc., the company licensed to sell the as yet unnamed abscission agent. AgroSource has worked with the compound since 2004.

Tests show it may also find a place in hand-harvested groves, since it reduces the labor force needed to pick the fruit by as much as two-thirds, he said at the recent Florida Citrus Industry Conference at Bonita Springs.

“It can reduce harvester fatigue and improve productivity in hand-harvested groves as much as 50 percent,” Richardson says.

Jacqueline Burns, now director of the University of Florida Citrus Research and Education Center at Lake Alfred, spent much of her career working on harvesting issues, including the abscission agent.

“This chemical has been around for more than four decades,” she says. “It was originally a compound from Abbott Labs. In the 1970s, thousands of abscission agent compounds were screened, and this one stood out. It is so selective and so forgiving of errors in calculation. But it only works on citrus; its action is very specific to the citrus peel, and it has to be a mature fruit.

“Many growers haven’ttaken the plunge into mechanical harvesting, but have said as soon as we could get an abscission agent, they would try it. This is definitely a solution worthy of consideration; it has real value.

“It will help growers remain competitive and overcome a labor shortage. But, there is a tradeoff. If the tree is not healthy, mechanical harvesting might damage it. But a healthy well-watered tree should do well.”

Its selectivity worked against quicker registration of the abscission agent, she  says.

“We explored the concept with the big chemical companies, and the crop acreage wasn’t big enough to encourage shareholders to invest in an abscission agent that would only be used on citrus.

“We got a smaller company, AgroSource, interested, and they have shepherded it forward, along with the Florida Department of Citrus, the public entity involved in this public/private partnership that is now moving forward.”

The venture carries risk.

“In the case of most agri-chemicals, you’re talking huge volumes and economies of scale,” AgroSource’s Richardson says. “What we’re looking at doing is manufacturing one product for one crop in one state.

“We’ve only made it on a small scale, so when we get on a larger scale we’ll really find out the costs of making it. We need volume. And, there are questions. Are people going to move rapidly into this for manual harvesting? Or will the industry be buying it only for mechanical harvesting? We’re going to have to think about all these processes going forward.

“We’re trying to learn how quickly we can make this move and scale up manufacturing. You generally want a year to get manufacturing going, but we would like to catch the Valencia season next year. Understanding what needs to be done is critical. It would be a neat trick if we can get that accomplished between now and Valencia season next year, but if that doesn’t happen, we’re not going to give up.”

Extensive testing over many years gives researchers the ability to pinpoint what the abscission agent will do, Richardson says. “It has been used successfully around the state, and it’s pretty predictable if you follow the protocol on how to use it.”

Mechanized harvesting couldchange a number of things in the business, including how groves look, he says. He thinks the machines will continue to evolve, and that the best machine might wind up being an over-the-top harvester like the one used in grapes.

“Tree architecture, root stock and grove design will all change,” Richardson says. “We’ll have an advanced citrus production system, with trees on 8x15 foot spacings, 350 trees per acre — something very manageable. We have to think about where we’re going.”

From a large acreage grower’s point of view, changes like these look appealing if they ultimately lead to greater profit margins in a business that seems tougher each year. Frank Hunt, with Lake Wales-based Hunt Bros., part of the Cooperative Producers operation near Immokalee, likes the possibilities.