USDA Responds to Skepticism About Citrus Forecast

Hudson

The season’s initial U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) citrus crop forecast for Florida, issued Oct. 12, was met with skepticism soon after being released. Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam and Florida Citrus Mutual both expressed concern that the 54 million-box Florida orange projection did not adequately reflect damage created by Hurricane Irma. Mutual, the state’s largest citrus grower organization, was disappointed that USDA didn’t delay the forecast’s release until Irma’s damage could be fully assessed.

Despite the criticisms, Mark Hudson, a key participant in the creation of the Florida forecast, was seemingly calm the day after its release, and said he was comfortable with it. “Based on current conditions, that’s what it is,” said Hudson, Florida state statistician with the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). “We set our numbers based on objective measurements of the Florida citrus crop. That’s what we saw looking at it. I don’t know what the November forecast is going to be, but the data will tell us.”

According to Hudson, a USDA regulation was put in place in 2009 that requires a Florida citrus crop forecast to be produced beginning in October. “We have this regulation we have to follow and it has to be between the ninth and the twelfth of each month,” explained Hudson. He said he can remember only once when an initial crop forecast was delayed; that was in 2013 when the federal government briefly shut down.

The initial USDA Florida citrus crop forecast issued Oct. 12 was based on conditions in citrus groves on Oct. 1. That’s in accord with the USDA’s NASS policy, outlined in a May 2012 NASS report titled, “The Yield Forecasting Program of NASS.” The report states, “NASS policy requires forecasts to be based on conditions as of the first of the month.”

All citrus forecasts are based on actual fruit counts and measurements. The objective count method uses four components:

1) Bearing age trees provided from the latest Commercial Citrus Inventory
2) Average fruit per tree obtained from the limb count survey using randomly selected trees and limbs
3) Fruit size from the fruit measurement survey
4) Fruit loss from the drop survey

Hudson said the tree inventory, covering 269,200 acres of Florida citrus, was conducted from July 1, 2016 to June 23, 2017, and so was completed well before Hurricane Irma.

The limb count takes 10 weeks for surveyors to count the number of fruit on 10 percent of the wood in a tree. The limb count was being conducted in 3,358 groves. “When Hurricane Irma hit, we had 90 percent of our (limb count) data collected,” Hudson said. “And we determined that the remaining 10 percent was not significantly different (from what had been counted), so we went with the 90 percent.”

The fruit size measurement and fruit drop counts were conducted in 1,971 groves after Hurricane Irma hit.

When all four components of the forecast were collected, “we summarized all that” and applied regression formulas using data from the 2007–08 through 2016–17 seasons, Hudson said.

A week before the forecast’s Oct. 12 release, four Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ employees and two NASS statisticians flew to Washington, D.C. They prepared estimates for the Agricultural Statistics Board and set the Florida citrus crop forecast.

“Like we do every other time, we forecast what’s going to be (the crop size) at the end of the season,” Hudson said.

USDA issues monthly updates to the forecast throughout the citrus season. The first update is scheduled for Nov. 9. Hear it live at noon on the Citrus Industry website.

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Ernie Neff

Ernie Neff

Senior Correspondent at Large