In Defense of Florida’s Citrus Industry

Josh McGill Economics

By Marisa L. Zansler

The Florida citrus industry has endured many challenges throughout its storied history, but never more so than over the past 18 years. During this time, the devastating impact of HLB has become more apparent and entrenched as the root cause of declines in the production of oranges, grapefruit and specialty citrus. HLB, combined with recent weather-related events, has placed Florida citrus production at a crossroads.

citrus industry

Even though HLB was not discovered in Florida until 2005, it was likely previously present in the state and spread by hurricanes in the 2004 and 2005 seasons. Florida production suffered another blow when, in 2017, Hurricane Irma caused devastating damage to the 2017–18 crop.

Weather-related events in 2022 further complicated efforts to supply the robust demand for Florida citrus products experienced over the past two and a half years. The most significant events affecting the Florida 2022–23 citrus season are weather-related.

The first damaging event was a freeze occurring over a two-day period in late January 2022 when considerable grove acreage experienced significantly low temperatures over long durations. The second significant event occurred when Hurricane Ian crossed through the majority of Florida’s citrus-producing regions on Sept. 28. While the impact of Ian had yet to be fully assessed, a third weather-related event, Hurricane Nicole, also passed through key areas already stressed from Ian.

Unsurprisingly, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) December forecast, the first report reflecting the 2022 hurricane impacts, was very low. USDA reported 13 million boxes of Valencia oranges, 7 million boxes of non-Valencia oranges, 1.8 million boxes of grapefruit and 600 thousand boxes of tangerines and tangelos, suggesting half the crop yield compared to the year before. In fact, Florida production had already declined by more than 70% compared to the 2016–17 season, the season prior to Hurricane Irma.

The anticipated response by Florida processors and packinghouses was clear. Even with supply constraints and the expected wane in consumer demand amid high inflation and market disruptions, U.S. orange juice consumption was likely to near 700 million gallons. With U.S. orange juice inventories barely above 250 million gallons and production of juice from the Florida orange crop limited to about 100 million gallons of orange juice, imports would be needed in order to maintain shelf space and market demand. Orange juice imports are expected to triple by the end of the season, which could effectively impede market access for Florida production in the future.

The same fate will befall the Florida grapefruit crop this season. Processors will likely produce no more than 4.5 million gallons of grapefruit juice, a decline of nearly 45% compared to last season.

Fresh citrus shipments are also expected to drop between 45% and 60% for the season. 

Nevertheless, rebuilding the industry is a passion for many industry advocates who want to restore Florida’s production to meet the market demand. Florida’s production of orange juice this season is still expected to account for as much as 65% of domestically sourced orange juice. Yet, rebuilding won’t be easy. Florida growers face many challenges, including an aging commercial tree inventory where 57% of the state’s orange trees and close to 70% of the grapefruit trees are older than 14 years. This fact has resulted in declining per acre yields, higher costs of production to maintain older trees and an insufficient tree replacement rate. Predictably, the abandoned acreage rate has increased in recent years.

History shows us that replanting is possible, but it took time with an optimistic look to the future. The industry experienced several freezes in the 1980s that were exceptionally devastating to production. Yet, through focused efforts from 1988 through 2000, there were 32.7 million net new trees replanted. In 1990, 35% of the tree inventory was newly planted, non-bearing trees. By 2000, the tree inventory was at its peak with 32% of trees between the ages of 9 and 13. Per tree yields were much higher with healthier, newer trees. In 1990, the total production of 40.7 million bearing trees was 110.2 million boxes. The next year, production was 151.6 million boxes. The question becomes: How can we get there?

Fortunately, these same industry advocates are dedicated now more than ever to paving the path forward alongside Florida growers. The efforts of grower groups, like Florida Citrus Mutual and the Florida Department of Citrus (FDOC), are steadfast in promoting measures that support progress for the citrus industry. Developing important new therapies and technologies, securing the research funding needed for the necessary tools to replant a healthy commercial citrus tree inventory, and continuing efforts to keep Florida citrus top of mind for industry stakeholders and consumers are the goals we should pursue.

The Florida citrus industry generates billions of dollars in economic activity, especially for rural communities. We must protect our industry because it is the heart, spirit and essence of Florida. 

Marisa L. Zansler is the director of the Economic and Market Research Department at the FDOC in Bartow.

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