North Florida citrus growers who are new to the industry received some marketing advice and background information recently from Vero Beach grower and packer Dan Richey. He gave a presentation during a virtual annual meeting of the Cold Hardy Citrus Association on Sept. 23.
Richey, president and CEO of Riverfront Packing, urged the growers to have a plan and to “stay together; work together … Remember, fragmented marketing is not your friend.” He also advised the regional growers to “create that brand you can protect.”
The industry veteran told the citrus growers that they have a tender product that needs to be handled carefully during harvesting and post-harvest operations. “Definitely, pay attention to all the details” to ensure the fruit lasts on the store shelf, Richey said. He also told the growers that marketing citrus is a relationship business.
The fledgling North Florida growers also got a modern Florida citrus history lesson from Richey. The 40-year industry veteran said the late 1990s and early 2000s were “probably the pinnacle” of the Florida citrus industry. He reported that Florida production peaked in those years at 285 million boxes of oranges and 60 million boxes of grapefruit.
“Things changed pretty abruptly,” Richey continued. He reported that a canker eradication program “almost eradicated the industry,” and that five hurricanes hit Florida citrus in 2004 and 2005. Many coastal growers sold their groves to developers during the housing boom of the early 2000s, and then HLB “caused an infrastructure collapse,” Richey said. Many processing plants and packinghouses closed for good after the disease devastated production. Production tumbled to current levels of 60 to 65 million boxes of oranges and 4.5 million boxes of grapefruit, he reported.
Economists do not expect the industry to have a major recovery from its recent woes, Richey said. “We’ll probably never get back to where we were.” However, Richey said citrus contributes $6.5 billion a year to the Florida economy.
While California now grows more fresh citrus than Florida, Florida can transport fresh citrus to East Coast markets more cheaply than California can, Richey said. He added that California has a trucking cost advantage west of the Mississippi, and Texas has a trucking cost advantage to the Midwest.
“Today, the demand for citrus is extremely strong,” Richey reported, adding that COVID-19 contributed to purchases because of the belief that vitamin C enhances the immune system. See a report indicating that fresh Florida-grown citrus sales are expected to increase.
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