TALLAHASSEE (News Service of Florida)
Florida citrus growers took another hit Thursday, more than three months after Hurricane Ian swept through the heart of the industry.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reduced a production forecast for the current growing season by 10 percent for oranges and 16.6 percent for grapefruit and specialty crops.
Florida Citrus Mutual CEO Matt Joyner called the forecast “concerning, but not unexpected.” Growers have long struggled against deadly citrus greening disease but also are recovering from the late September hurricane and faced a freeze as 2022 came to a close.
“We remain optimistic given the new research and tools being implemented to combat greening and rebuild our industry,” Joyner said in a prepared statement. “It will be a steady climb, but Florida growers remain steadfast in our commitment to come back, and we will continue to deliver America’s favorite family beverage.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture began making monthly forecasts for this growing season in October. The revised estimates Thursday were off 36 percent for oranges and 25 percent for grapefruit from the initial forecast, which was based on field surveys from before Ian.
Even before Ian made landfall in Southwest Florida and crossed the state, the industry was forecast to see production reduced by one-third from the 2021-2022 growing season, which ended in July. The September surveys found trees with smaller-sized fruit and fewer oranges per tree.
Now, groves are expected to produce a little more than 50 percent of last year’s crop, marking what would be the lowest output since the 1929-1930 season.
Mark Hudson, a state statistician for the federal agency, said in a conference call Thursday it’s difficult to speculate how much Ian affected this season’s crop, which was already heading toward historic lows primarily because of citrus greening. Hurricane Nicole also hit the state in November.
“Our average fruit per tree is down significantly these last few years,” he said. “So, we started off a pretty short crop. Then we had the two hurricanes come through and the ever-present greening.”
Greening has been a bane of the industry for two decades. Production peaked in the 1997-1998 season when growers filled 244 million 90-pound boxes of oranges, 49.55 million boxes of grapefruit and 10.9 million boxes of specialty fruits.
The estimate released Thursday for this season said growers are expected to fill 18 million boxes of oranges, down 2 million from the December forecast. Growers are also expected to fill 1.5 million boxes of grapefruit, a reduction of 300,000 from December, and 500,000 boxes of specialty fruits. In a December forecast, specialty fruits, primarily tangerines and tangelos, were at 600,000.
A University of Florida-Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences report released weeks after Ian estimated the storm’s impact to the citrus industry at $146.9 million to $304.3 million. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumers Services estimated damages at $675 million.
Inflation, reduced supply and increased demand since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic have helped boost citrus prices. Most of Florida’s oranges are processed into juice.