State of the Florida Citrus-Packing Segment

Tacy CalliesCitrus

packingBy Peter Chaires

Florida’s fresh-packing segment is in a significant period of transition. The freezes of the 1980s caused substantial southward movement of citrus production and the loss of supply to most packinghouses in the northern regions. During this time, urban expansion and construction booms were also depleting acreage that supplied fresh houses.

The early battles against citrus canker eliminated more fresh acreage. As the industry began to reach a state of equilibrium, HLB arrived in Florida. The challenges of bringing a crop to market in an HLB world suddenly made the challenges of the previous 25 years pale in comparison.

Forty-five packinghouses soon shrank to 35, then 25. Some companies have been able to consolidate operations with friendly competitors. Others have had to close their doors; some having operated continuously for more than 90 years. Florida communities suffered the loss of major employers with the loss of each house.

Florida Citrus Packers has 15 packinghouses operating within its membership in the 2017–18 season. The volume of fruit available to pack (post-Irma) could conceivably be packed in two or three houses. In order to maintain packing capacity and key domestic and export markets, Florida houses have had to learn to operate with lower volumes and escalating costs. Some houses are not packing what they would choose to pack; they are packing what is available.

So is it all doom and gloom? Are we ready to write the obituary of the Florida packinghouse? Where, if anywhere, are we going? Before Hurricane Irma, the 2017–18 season was looking to be the first year in seven or eight years with improved production and fruit quality.

Significant volumes of low-seeded, specialty fruit varieties (U.S. Early Pride, Roe tangerine, Orri mandarin, Tango, Sugar Belle, etc.), navel oranges (red and white) and new mid- and late-season oranges have been planted and are starting to bear. Grapefruit growers are heavily involved in the establishment of new trials to explore any scion/rootstock combination that might illuminate a better way forward.

Innovative production practices, including new nutrition schemes, appear to have had an impact. While we have a long way to go, grove conditions going into the summer of 2017 had markedly improved. Nursery orders for fresh-fruit varieties have slowed, but continue to echo Florida’s commitment to the fresh-fruit market. These are not indicative of an industry that is giving up, but quite the contrary. These are necessary steps to rebuild, restore supply and improve Florida’s competitive position.

Growers continue to express interest in new variety releases and trials. The first University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) variety display of the season was well attended. Several new selections generated considerable interest among participating growers, packers, processors and marketers.

packingThe Florida Citrus Research Foundation annual meeting in December focused attention on two U.S. Department of Agriculture selections that hold promise for the Florida grower. Two new, international fresh selections were identified by Florida packers as being of commercial interest. These selections will be imported for trial and evaluation.

A recent meeting of New Varieties Development & Management Corp., Florida Foundation Seed Producers Inc. and the IFAS Plant Improvement Team developed a plan to simplify the FAST TRACK model to engage more Florida growers in the process and move more experimental selections to the field. Such are the activities of a fresh segment that is investing in the future.

The next great challenge for fresh-fruit growers and packers is the evaluation of new selections in the field in the presence of HLB. Trueness to type is a very difficult thing to determine when each variety responds to HLB in its own way. We simply must have a means of reducing the infection in the tree in order to determine the true potential of some of these varieties. Citrus under protective screen is one avenue, but something is needed for field plantings that is more effective than foliar bactericide applications.

Peter Chaires is executive director of the Florida Citrus Packers.

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