Cerabino: A single solution for Florida’s citrus and golf woes

When people think of Florida, the image of a golf course or a citrus grove often comes to mind.

After all, the generic state license plate features two oranges. Or if you prefer, you can opt for a specialty plate that shows a silhouetted golfer with the words “Florida: Golf Capital of the World.”

But the truth is that while citrus and golf are two iconic symbols of Florida, they’re both in serious decline.

And in need of help. I’ve got an idea.

But first, a little history.

Florida’s citrus industry has been reeling due to a bacterial disease called citrus greening, which is spread by an insect about the size of the head of a pin. The disease causes the trees to produce hard, bitter, discolored fruit that falls prematurely from the tree.

Statewide production of citrus, which had been at 244 million boxes a year, has shrunk to less than 80 million boxes. Thousands of workers have been laid off. And agricultural scientists are wondering whether Florida’s citrus farmers might be better off growing artichokes instead of oranges.

(I’m trying to envision a Florida license plate with two artichokes on it. It’s not working.)

Last year, the state issued a crisis declaration to the Environmental Protection Agency, citing a 71 percent decline in production to justify the use of three experimental treatments for greening-infected trees. But it didn’t reverse the trend, with this year’s season falling 17 percent from the previous years’ yield.

Golf’s also fighting a war of attrition.

More golf courses are closing than opening. In Palm Beach County, which has for years boasted that it has more courses that any other county in America, it’s the same story.

Golf course communities with aging populations are finding golf memberships declining, making it harder to keep up their courses. As a result, some are looking to sell their golf course land to developers.

There are too many golf courses and not enough golfers to keep them in business.

Managers are starting to look for innovative ways to salvage this overpopulation. In Boca Raton, the city is hoping to sell most of its 27-hole municipal golf course to residential developers while helping the local park district take over and renovate a privately-owned dormant course on the city’s north end.

But maybe it’s time to take that innovation to the next level, to work out the problems for the golf and citrus industries in a single solution.

For starters, it would take thinking beyond the golf ball. Golf balls are small, dense orbs that are capable of being hit more than two hundred of yards. It’s why golf courses have to be so big.

It takes about 150 to 200 acres of land on average to make room for those far-flying balls on an 18-hole golf course. That’s a lot of manicured land to fertilize, water and maintain.

The economic issues of the sport are intrinsically tied to the ball.

Using a ball that can’t be hit as far as a regulation golf ball would automatically shorten the length of the course, allowing existing courses to be salvaged by selling off excess golf course land to developers.

We could call this new version of the game “Florida golf.”

Instead of swinging at Titleists, Callaways and Maxflis, golfers would be swinging at Valencias, Navels and Ambersweets.

The harvest of hard, worthless citrus would suddenly have value as the new ball in Florida Golf.

Florida golf could keep citrus farmers in business long enough to give scientists a chance to solve the citrus greening problem. And meanwhile, this shorter, easier version of golf — it would be pretty hard to miss a Ruby Red grapefruit — would allow golf course communities to remain solvent.

It’s not as revolutionary as it sounds at first. This idea of taking an established sport and modifying it to create a more player-friendly version of the game has already happened to tennis.

Older, less mobile players, have discovered that tennis courts can be converted into pickle ball courts by slightly lowering the net and using a plastic perforated ball and wooden or composite paddles.

Using damaged immature citrus to play Florida golf would be a novelty, and with a ball that floats, an attractive feature to those players with a penchant for finding water traps.

It might even boost tourism.

For what golfer wouldn’t want to take a mighty swing from the tee box, then turn to say with undisputed confidence, “I really crushed that one.”

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