Let’s Talk About CUPS

Josh McGillCUPS, Economics, Florida Department of Citrus

By Thomas H. Spreen

Citrus under protective screen (CUPS) is a relatively new technology being adopted to help spur expansion of fresh citrus production in Florida. Large screen houses (approximately 10 acres) are constructed. In the current arrangement, several screen houses are located together to facilitate caretaking and harvest. Trees are planted at high densities (more than 300 trees per acre) so that a single screen house can contain more than 3,000 trees.

Early Pride mandarins grown in CUPS

The advantages of CUPS are clear. Nearly all flying insects (with the possible exception of mites) are excluded from the facility, making it free of HLB. Weeds are less likely to invade, which reduces herbicide costs. Trees are fed with fertigation, so they grow very quickly and can produce a crop in year three (or possibly even in year two).

The two major disadvantages of CUPS are also clear. First, there is a weather risk from cyclonic winds. Insurance can mitigate this risk, but if the screen is damaged, pest invasion is possible. The second disadvantage is the initial investment. With rising construction costs, the initial investment — including land, irrigation and new trees — exceeds $1 million per screen house. This puts it out of reach for many prospective investors. A grower who has a tract of land with irrigation in place would face lower initial investment costs.

The temptation of CUPS, however, is that early adopters are reporting attractive yields, even on young trees. Packout rates are expected to be high due to lack of insect damage as well as protection afforded by the screen from wind scar. With red grapefruit in short supply, on-tree prices of fresh utilization of $25 per box are not unreasonable. Prices for processed grapefruit are also at a high level. An on-tree price in the range of $8.50 per box for eliminated fruit is possible.

At the same time, however, open-field production of grapefruit in Florida has become problematic. In 2019–20, total grapefruit production in Florida was 4.85 million boxes. This was accomplished on 18,606 acres with a yield of 261 boxes per acre. The level of productivity is far below what was realized in the 1990s. The combined effect of HLB and citrus canker has also adversely affected packout, diminishing the amount of fruit that can be sold in the fresh market.

Assuming that yields in CUPS plantings grow at rates observed in open-field production before HLB, it is not implausible to see yields reaching 700 to 800 boxes per acre by the time the trees are 10 years old. It is also possible that as trees age, packout rates may approach 100%.

An aerial view of the Dundee Citrus Growers Association’s CUPS facility in Alturas, Florida

In summary, CUPS offers a high-risk, high-reward approach to fresh citrus production in Florida. It is not suitable for smaller investors unless they are able to join a partnership and pool capital with others. CUPS, however, may be the future avenue that allows Florida to once again be a major supplier to the fresh citrus market.

Thomas H. Spreen is professor emeritus in the Food and Resource Economics Department of the University of Florida and senior economic consultant in the Economic and Market Research Department of the Florida Department of Citrus.

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