Heavy fruit drop and weather issues reportedly could lead to reduction in Florida’s Valencia orange crop. Some in the citrus industry said COVID-19 issues in processing plants have also limited the intake of Valencias from groves, but the Florida Citrus Processors Association (FCPA) says that is not likely the case.
“Processors have slowed down presumably due to COVID-19 … They have been limiting loads, and growers are far behind where they were this time last year,” said Gene McAvoy with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS). McAvoy is associate director for stakeholder relations at the UF/IFAS Southwest Florida Research and Education Center in Immokalee. He said the processing plant slowdowns have reportedly been due to increased sanitation procedures, employees staying home to watch children, fear and social distancing.
“At the same time, abnormally hot, dry, windy weather conditions are stressing trees already suffering from the effects of HLB with the result that we are seeing a high percentage of fruit drop,” McAvoy added. “This was noticeable as far back as February but really accelerated in the latter half of March and April with the result that some growers stand to lose 50 percent or more of their fruit before they can get it harvested. In addition, fruit has started to dry out on the tree and contains less juice per box; quality is also suffering.”
Steve Smith, executive vice president of Gulf Citrus Growers Association, agreed with McAvoy. “I have talked to several growers who are experiencing heavy drops and feel like their load allocation is down due to challenges at the three processing plants that are running, as Gene described,” he said.
Kristen Carlson, executive director of FCPA, disputed assertions that COVID-19 issues in processing plants had an impact. “FCPA has received a couple of press calls asking whether processor capacity has been limited by COVID-19,” Carlson said. “We cannot speak for all processors, but we have polled several of our members and the answer is ‘no’ — not at the plant level. COVID-19 has not reduced citrus processor ability or capacity to receive and process citrus fruit. Some processors are getting pressure to take fruit sooner, but we hear that is due to reports of fruit drop, worry about losing harvesting labor and other factors. Overall, citrus processors are going 24/7 at their full capacity and doing their level best to get the fruit they’ve purchased all taken care of.”
“The concern over COVID-19 isn’t surprising since some ag sectors have almost shut down,” Carlson added. “Through the vagaries of nature sometimes, as in the case of a freeze or a late-maturing crop, there can be a rush to get fruit to the plant. We know it is very frustrating to growers to not be able to deliver when they are ready to go. The plants, however, need to have an orderly and staggered system over time to handle fruit flow through the gate. There are only so many juice extractors to do the work and slots for trucks to deliver. Processors work very hard to coordinate harvesting and deliveries with growers. The contraction of the industry and fewer processing plants may also impact any rush to finish the season.”
Ray Royce, executive director of Highlands County Citrus Growers Association, said several fruit handlers have told him that drought and fruit drop have affected blocks to varying extents. “Obviously the blocks that are just now getting picked are seeing a greater impact from those factors than those blocks that were picked earlier in the Valencia harvest season,” Royce said. “It seems that there is significant variation as to the impacts of these factors dependent on grove location and overall condition.”
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