Oranges have been among Florida’s most venerable ambassadors. To the rest of the world, they’re tasty treats from a sunny, tropical paradise. But this year, there won’t be as many of them to savor. The industry that produces Florida citrus is under attack on two fronts: Decreasing land due to development and, even more daunting, an ever-increasing spread of deadly disease.
Previously, FORWARD Florida reported on the impact of HLB, or citrus greening, on Florida oranges and grapefruit. Since then, a final, updated report on citrus production was released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Unfortunately, the news didn’t get any better.
The latest USDA report released in July forecasts 2014-15 Florida orange production to only reach 96.7 million boxes, a drop of four percent from a year ago. Grapefruit production was forecast at 12.95 million boxes.
Preseason forecasts had put orange production at an only-slightly-more robust 108 million boxes, while grapefruit was projected to be 15 million boxes. The orange forecast remained above 100 million boxes as recently as May. Any crop forecast decline over the course of a single season is a major concern, and this one is particularly concerning as the industry is already in the midst of a prolonged slump.
According to Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, statewide orange production has slumped more than 60 percent since its 1997-98 peak of 244 million boxes. Though the loss of usable growing land is a contributor, more than 40 percent of the decline has occurred since the arrival of citrus greening to the state around 2005.
As FORWARD Florida reported earlier, the yield dropped to about 149 million boxes that season. It then varied between 133 million and 170 million boxes through 2012-13. Last year, it fell dramatically to only 104 million boxes.
“We had severe fruit drop, and a lot of citrus from stressed trees with HLB ended up on the ground,” said Michael W. Sparks, executive vice president/CEO of industry trade group Florida Citrus Mutual in a news release. “If anything, this season provides stark evidence that growers, scientists and the state and federal governments need to work together to beat this disease…”
Spread by an insect, the bacteria that causes citrus greening alters nutrient flow to the tree. At first, an infected tree may only yield disfigured and bitter fruit. After that, it simply dies. Growers and scientists fear that as many as 75 percent of Florida’s 69 million citrus trees could already be infected.
Is there a way out of this valley? Florida Department of Citrus officials are hopeful that, with sufficient resources and ingenuity, production can eventually turn around.
In the last legislative session, state lawmakers earmarked $8 million to fund research, grow clean citrus stock and plant new trees. Though far short of the $18 million originally requested, it’s double the amount awarded during the previous season. On the federal level, the USDA allocated $30 million this past February to fund long-term research and find short-term solutions to control the disease.
Despite the challenges ahead, Putnam sounded resolute in a statement made to the media after the latest USDA forecast was released. “We will continue to fight to save Florida’s signature crop, its more than $10.7 billion economic impact and the more than 64,000 jobs it supports.”
Over the years, Florida has become famous for more than oranges, but the state’s identity – not to mention its economy – remains inexorably tied to agriculture and the citrus industry. Putnam and other agriculture leaders know all too well it’s going to take more than good intentions to reverse this green tide.