Florida’s citrus forecast takes a hit

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Citrus
Citrus. By Ian DeBarry/WMNF

By Jim Turner ©2024 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s citrus industry got some bitter news Thursday as it enters the final months of the 2023-2024 growing season.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture released a report that reduced estimates of orange and grapefruit production. Overall, the new numbers indicated the industry will slightly outpace the 2022-2023 season, which was devastated by Hurricane Ian and had the lowest output in 93 years.

The report estimated that growers will produce 18.8 million 90-pound boxes of oranges and 2 million boxes of grapefruit this season. That was down from a March forecast of 19.8 million boxes of oranges and 2.2 million boxes of grapefruit.

The industry has struggled for years with deadly citrus-greening disease and was dealt another blow when Ian made landfall in September 2022 in Southwest Florida and barreled through major citrus-growing areas. Ian was followed by the smaller Hurricane Nicole, which made landfall six weeks later on the East Coast.

Despite Thursday’s reduced estimates, Florida Citrus Mutual CEO Matt Joyner expressed optimism.

“Growers are witnessing improved tree health and ‘snow white’ orange blossoms in the groves — a tell-tale sign that there’s hope for Florida’s citrus industry to make its great American comeback,” Joyner said in a prepared statement.

The new estimates came after a report highlighted industry struggles against citrus greening, hurricanes. residential growth and foreign competition.

The Florida Citrus Statistics report said what is known as an “on-tree value” of the 2022-2023 citrus crop in Florida was $194 million, 61 percent less than in the 2021-2022 season.

Ian traveled directly over four of the five largest citrus-producing counties — DeSoto, Highlands, Hardee and Polk — and resulted in large amounts of oranges dropping before they could be harvested, according to the statistics report. Nicole, meanwhile, hit grapefruit-producing counties, causing large amounts of fruit to drop.

The losses resulted in Florida accounting for just 17 percent of all U.S. citrus production during the 2022-2023 season, while California was at 79 percent. Texas and Arizona produced the remaining 4 percent.

The 2022 storm damage exacerbated the steady decline in production over the past two decades in Florida.

The statistics report found 298,400 acres of citrus-bearing trees in Florida during the 2022-2023 season, 12.3 percent fewer than in the 2021-2022 growing season and 56 percent less than 20 years ago.

Meanwhile, overall production has dropped by 93 percent over two decades.

Thursday’s news release from Florida Citrus Mutual pointed to disease-resistant varieties of fruit and new treatment methods that are proving effective. It also praised research funding included in the 2024-2025 state budget, which the Legislature approved last month. The budget has not been formally sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The budget includes $47 million for various aspects of the citrus industry, including $29 million for research into citrus greening, technologies to treat and prevent citrus greening, and to conduct and field trials. Another $9 million of the citrus funding is slated to go into marketing.

Florida saw the orange crop fall from 41.2 million boxes in 2021-2022 to 15.85 million boxes in 2022-2023. Grapefruit production went from 3.33 million boxes in 2021-2022 to 1.81 million boxes in 2022-2023.

Florida’s specialty crops, primarily tangerines and tangelos, are projected to fill 500,000 boxes this season, up from 480,000 boxes last season. Specialty crops totaled 750,000 boxes in 2021-2022.

The April forecast for tangerines and tangelos was unchanged from March.

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