By John Haughey | The Center Square
Florida citrus growers' most pervasive challenge over the past decade has been combating greening disease, or citrus huanglongbing, an unculturable bacteria that originated in China and was imported from Brazil.
Now beset by economic disruptions caused by a virus that originated in China, the Sunshine State’s $8.6 billion citrus industry is forecast to see continued declines in harvests and profits this coming growing season.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s citrus forecast, released late last week, projected Florida citrus groves will produce 57 million 90-pound boxes of oranges during the 2020-21 grow season, which began this month and ends in July. That is down 15 percent from 67.3 million boxes harvested during the 2019-20 season.
The USDA also forecast Florida will produce 4.5 million boxes of grapefruit, down 7 percent from this year’s harvest.
According to the Florida Department of Citrus (FDC), the state’s 4,000 citrus growers employ 45,000 people in managing nearly 440,000 acres of groves, provide an annual economic impact of $8.6 billion and account for 57.7 percent of the nation’s domestic orange production.
The scaled-back USDA projection was expected, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said.
“Since late spring, the Florida citrus industry has anticipated the 2020-21 citrus crop to be smaller than the prior season, and today confirms that assumption,” she said in a statement. “However, Florida citrus production is a marathon, not a sprint, and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services stands committed to help strengthen and promote Florida-grown citrus.”
FDC Executive Director Shannon Shepp said USDA’s lowered expectations “is more likely reflective of factors beyond grower control.”
Noting the “first forecast of the season serves as a starting point, we recognize it does not necessarily indicate where we will end up,” Shepp said. She is “optimistic about the conditions of groves, preparations for the coming season’s crop and continued efforts to combat greening."
Florida’s citrus industry has struggled the past two decades from development of rural areas; changes in drinking habits; the infusion of lower-priced – often subsidized – citrus imports, primarily from Mexico; and the emergence of greening disease.
Hurricane Irma exacerbated those issues, damaging $760 million in crops and 420,000 acres of citrus groves.
A USDA report in August found about half of Florida’s citrus groves have disappeared since 2000, when they produced nearly 200 million orange and 50 million grapefruit boxes.
The Florida Citrus Commission will consider Oct. 21 increasing a box tax growers pay – now 7 cents per box – for marketing in an effort to capture domestic markets inundated with citrus from Mexico and Brazil.
The commission is pondering a proposed $10 million national marketing campaign to find new markets for Florida oranges, of which about 95 percent is processed into juice.
The FDC based its box-tax revenue projection for 2021 in June on 2020 harvest numbers: 67.65 million boxes of oranges, 4.89 million boxes of grapefruit and 1.02 million boxes of specialty crops.
The USDA’s forecast tabbed the projected harvest to be 57 million orange boxes, 4.5 million grapefruit boxes and 1.1 million boxes of specialty crops – mostly tangerines and tangelos.
Florida Citrus Commission members expressed in June the state’s projected 2020-21 growing season forecast was too high and, therefore, without increasing the box tax, revenues would fall short in funding the effort.
“When Americans think of wellness and health, their thoughts turn to Florida orange juice and fresh citrus, especially during these unprecedented times,” Fried said. “Despite the challenges Florida’s citrus growers have faced as a result of citrus greening, I continue to be encouraged by the resiliency of this industry, its producers, and their commitment to new plantings, research and innovation.”