Florida citrus production could get a rare bump

Citrus. By Ian DeBarry/WMNF

By Jim Turner and Tom Urban ©2023 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Still recovering from Hurricane Ian, Florida’s citrus industry is expected to see an increase in production after last year’s storm-damaged crop.

But an initial forecast for the 2023-2024 growing season, released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, projected that orange production will be half of what it was two seasons ago. In addition to recovering from Ian, the industry continues to face pressures ranging from development to a decades-long battle against citrus greening disease.

Senate Majority Leader Ben Albritton, Wauchula Republican who is a citrus grove owner, said Thursday that “across the groves and in almost every grove, there are a lot of differences between the trees. It used to be very uniform, but now it’s not.”

Albritton, however, expressed some long-term optimism.

“Everybody that spends time in the industry is seeing the trees begin to turn around and get more healthy,” Albritton told The News Service of Florida. “So, we feel like we are in recovery, and that will, at some point soon, show in our crop numbers.”

Thursday’s forecast projected that growers will produce enough Valencia oranges this season to fill 13 million 90-pound boxes, up from 9.65 million boxes in the 2022-2023 season. They also are projected to fill 7.5 million boxes of non-Valencia oranges, up from 6.15 million boxes in 2022-2023.

Overall, the 20.5 million boxes of oranges would be a nearly 30 percent increase from last season. But it would be less than half of the 41.2 million boxes produced during the 2021-2022 season and even further below the 52.95 million boxes in 2020-2021.

Hurricane Ian, which hit Southwest Florida in September 2022, tore through the heart of the state’s citrus industry. Meanwhile, growers have spent years trying to fend off deadly citrus greening disease.

Matt Joyner, CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual, said Thursday that growers continue to see the health of citrus trees improve and expressed confidence “the effects of treatments and disease-resistant varieties will be reflected in the data over time.”

“The promise of a comeback for Florida’s citrus industry is on the horizon for the first time in a long time,” Joyner said. “Growers continue to see improvements in the groves — tree health is improving as a result of new therapies and the size of the fruit is larger and the quality is better than we’ve seen in recent years.”

But Joyner said growers continue to wait for aid from a $1.7 trillion spending bill Congress approved in December. The bill included $3.742 billion for crop and livestock losses across the nation.

Florida Citrus Mutual has supported legislation that would give authority to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to release money in block grants.

In addition to oranges, the new forecast projects that growers this season will produce 1.9 million boxes of grapefruit, up from 1.81 million boxes in 2022-2023. While that would be an increase, it would remain far below the 3.33 million boxes in 2021-2022 and the 4.1 million boxes in 2020-2021.

Specialty crops, primarily tangerines and tangelos are forecast at 500,000 boxes this season, just over 4 percent more than in the 2022-2023 season, but 33 percent less than in 2021-2022 and 43.8 percent less than in 2020-2021.

As with the 2022-2023 season, the overall projected totals this season would be the lowest since 1930.

State lawmakers included $65 million for various aspects of the citrus industry in the current budget, which took effect July 1. The total, which includes $49.5 million for citrus protection and research on trees resistant to citrus greening, was an $28 million increase from the previous year.

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