By Jim Turner ©2023 The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — As it hopes for a warm winter, Florida’s struggling citrus industry could be showing signs of recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Ian and progress in the decades-long fight against citrus greening disease.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Friday revised a forecast for the 2023-2024 citrus growing season by upping projections for grapefruit and specialty fruits, which are mostly tangerines and tangelos. The projection for oranges remained unchanged from the season’s initial forecast in October.
The combined projections are nearly 30 percent ahead of last season’s production, which was hammered by Hurricane Ian and a winter freeze. But the overall forecast total for 2023-2024 is just over half the production amount from the 2021-2022 season.
Also, the projected total remains closer to production in the 1930s than in the 1990s, before citrus greening began to ravage groves and development pressures exploded for land.
Shannon Shepp, executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus, called Friday’s update “another indicator that a more integrated and innovative approach to combating citrus greening as an industry is having an impact.”
“While there are still challenges ahead, these forecasts are a foundation for optimism that we now feel across the communities that make up Florida’s iconic citrus industry,” Shepp said.
Saying that treatment methods being used against citrus greening are proving effective, Florida Citrus Mutual CEO Matt Joyner expressed optimism that production will continue to improve “if citrus trees can come out of the winter months unscathed by freezing temperatures and continue to grow in the new year.”
The new forecast said the industry remains on pace to fill 20.5 million 90-pound boxes of oranges. That compares to 15.8 million boxes during the 2022-2023 season and 41.2 million boxes during the 2021-2022 season. Most of Florida’s oranges are processed into juice.
Another 2.4 million boxes are expected to be filled this season with grapefruit and 550,000 boxes with specialty fruits.
Growers filled 1.81 million boxes of grapefruit during the 2022-2023 season and 3.33 million boxes during the 2021-2022 season. The initial October forecast for the 2023-2024 season put grapefruit production at 1.9 million boxes.
The industry filled 480,000 boxes of specialty fruits in 2022-2023 and 750,000 boxes in 2021-2022. The initial October forecast for 2023-2024 estimated a total of 500,000 boxes.
The growing season begins as summer turns to autumn and runs into June and July.
Alico, Inc., a major citrus grower, said in a quarterly financial filing this week that it anticipates an improved crop after Hurricane Ian cut the company’s production last season by just over 50 percent from the 2021-2022 season.
“We are confident that Alico’s crop recovery this season will be significant because of our exceptional caretaking practices and the maturity of over 2 million trees planted by the company since 2017,” John Kiernan, president and chief executive officer of the Fort Myers-based company, said in a prepared statement. “In addition, over 35 percent of our trees have now been treated with an oxytetracycline injection since January 2023 to combat citrus greening, with the goal to improve fruit quality and decrease the fruit drop rate.”
Ian made landfall in Southwest Florida and crossed through major citrus-growing areas. After Ian, Alico received about $28.2 million in insurance money, which helped in maintaining 49,000 citrus acres across seven counties, according to Kiernan’s statement.
The company also said it expects market prices to be consistent or slightly above the past season, amid continued consumer demand for orange juice, low levels of inventory at juice processors and a tighter global supply of oranges.
Alico and other parts of the industry also are waiting for federal assistance stemming from Hurricane Ian.
Meanwhile, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday released a proposed $114.4 billion budget for the state’s 2024-2025 fiscal year that would provide $20 million for citrus research and the Citrus Health Response Program, which is administered by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Another $10 million is proposed for advertising by the Florida Department of Citrus.
Joyner also said DeSantis’ support of $100 million for conservation easements under the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program would help the industry. A priority of Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson, the easements allow farmers and ranchers to continue operations with the promise that their land won’t be developed.
Lawmakers included $65 million for various aspects of the citrus industry in the state’s current budget, which took effect July 1. The total, which included $49.5 million for citrus protection and research on trees resistant to citrus greening, was a $28 million increase from the previous year.