Florida citrus industry sees a difficult season for growers

Citrus Plantation – Courtesy: Shutterstock – Image by SchnepfDesign

Florida’s citrus industry is expected to have one of the lowest production years in decades as it continues to struggle with devastating disease and issues.

In the first forecast for the 2021-2022 growing season, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated a nearly 11% drop in orange production and a 7.3% reduction in grapefruit production from the previous season. This would be among the smallest harvest totals since the 1940s.

“We hoped for more” and that with “more than 90% of Florida’s orange crop being squeezed for juice, nearly every drop of this season’s fruit will go straight to the premium, great-tasting not-from-concentrate orange juice consumers want,” said Florida Department of Citrus Executive Director Shannon Shepp in a statement.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said the Sunshine State remains committed to supporting growers through “research, technology, and techniques to fight the spread of citrus greening.”

Commercial and residential development, changes in beverage-consumption habits, foreign imports, and, since 2005, an incurable bacterial disease called huanglongbing or “simply citrus greening” are issues Florida growers have dealt with for years.

In an effort to build an increased demand for orange juice during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, Florida’s budget for the fiscal year that started July 1 includes $27.7 million to support the citrus industry. The biggest chunks of funding will go to marketing and research.

Fried has asked $15.6 million for the citrus industry for research and production in the 2022-2023 budget, which lawmakers will begin to develop in January.

Back in August, Elizabeth Steger, a citrus consultant from Kissimmee, suggested “government and private institutions join their resources to increase plantings, eradicate as much as possible sick trees and increase research fundings.”

Steger’s recommendations came as she forecast the orange crop to dwindle by 1.5% to about 52 million boxes.

The federal forecast has Florida growers producing enough oranges to fill 47 million 90-pound boxes, which is the industry benchmark. That would be down about 52.8 million boxes during the 2020-2021 season.

In recent times, the only season with less than 47 million boxe4s of oranges was the 2017-2018 season, which was due to heavy damage from Hurricane Irma. During that year, the state had about 45 million boxes of oranges.

“We hoped for more, but 47 million boxes of oranges demonstrate the resilience, ingenuity, and strength of Florida’s citrus growers and their unwavering commitment to fighting the challenges facing our industry,” Shepp said. “Demand for Florida orange juice remains strong, with consumers continuing to turn to 100% orange juice for its many health and wellness benefits. Further, growers and researchers continue to develop new tools in the fight against HLB (citrus greening).”

Valencia oranges, which are the majority of the Florida orange crop, are estimated at 28 million boxes, down 7.8% from last year. A 16% reduction in non-valencia oranges is forecasted.

The grapefruit forecast is currently at 3.8 million boxes, down from 4.1 million boxes in the past season.

Florida produced about 2,200 million boxes of oranges and 50 million boxes of grapefruit a quarter-century ago.

Specialty crops including tangelos and tangerines are forecasted at 900,000 boxes for the 2021-2022 season. This is up 1% from the 890,000 boxes that were filled throughout the 2020-2021 season.

On Oct. 27, the Florida Citrus Commission will review a tax growers pay per box — $0.12 per box of oranges and $0.07 a box for grapefruit and specialty fruits — to help fund money for marketing. 

Officials say the citrus industry provides a $6.76 billion annual economic impact and 33,300 jobs to the state.

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