By Tom Spreen
To proclaim that 2022 was a difficult year for the Florida citrus industry would be an understatement.
In late January, a short freeze hit much of the commercial citrus-producing area with long-term implications. While its effect on the 2021–22 crop was small, it came as the 2022–23 bloom was about to begin after a warm December. It was generally believed that the 2022–23 crop would not be good.
In the late summer, two hurricanes crossed peninsular Florida. Hurricane Ian, a powerful Category 4 storm, entered the state on Sept. 28 just north of Fort Myers. The storm made its way in a northeasterly fashion affecting citrus not only in Lee and Hendry counties but farther north and east into Hardee, DeSoto, Highlands and Polk counties. While the headlines focused on the damage to Sanibel and Fort Myers, growers knew that Hurricane Ian had caused a great deal of damage to not only Florida citrus, but also to Florida agriculture in the southwest and central portions of the state.
As the state was cleaning up from Ian, Hurricane Nicole struck just south of Vero Beach on Nov. 10 as a Category 1 storm. Since the east coast remains the main grapefruit-producing area of Florida, the storm was particularly damaging to grapefruit production. Total Florida citrus crop and tree losses from Hurricane Ian were estimated to be from $417 million to $675 million by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS). The agency pegged commercial tree losses at 8% to 11%.
The April federal crop forecast is that 16.1 million boxes of oranges and 1.7 million boxes of grapefruit will be produced in the 2022–23 season. This level of production would represent the smallest citrus crop produced in Florida since the 1930s. The question facing the industry now is whether it can recover from the shock of a second (and third) hurricane in the last five years exacerbated by the threat of HLB and other diseases.
The consequences of HLB on Florida citrus have many facets, including reduced tree productivity and lower fruit quality, which have combined to reduce pounds solids yield per acre. As a result, new plantings have slowed and led to a steady reduction in the state’s bearing tree population.
PLANTING PROGRAMS NOT ENOUGH
There have been notable attempts to reverse this trend, including the Tree Assistance Program funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency. This program, however, included limitations on access based upon growers’ income, which has limited its effectiveness.
Florida’s Natural Growers (FNG) sponsored its Producers Incentive Program (PIP) to encourage replanting of orange trees. It later extended the program to grapefruit and lemons. There are also limitations to access to this program as a grower must belong to one of the FNG cooperatives to participate. The PIP was successful in that it was fully subscribed, but the number of trees planted is only a portion of the number needed to fully rehabilitate the Florida citrus industry.
In my conversations with grove managers, the current cost to buy and plant a citrus tree is approximately $13.00 per tree if the variety chosen is not one of the new varieties that include a royalty. Tree densities (number of trees per acre) have increased in the past 15 to 20 years. Now, 218 trees per acre is close to the average being utilized by most growers. This means that the investment required to plant trees only is more than $2,800 per acre. This does not include land clearing and irrigation, although FDACS has a program to assist in the cost of irrigation.
The full cost to plant a solid-set citrus grove could easily reach $5,000 per acre. Even with the high fruit prices that are available this season, there is little economic incentive to undertake the investment in a new grove planting, even if the grower owns a parcel of land.
It is this observation that has led this author, on more than one occasion, to suggest the need for assistance provided by private or public sources to encourage growers, both existing and new entrants, to make investments in new plantings. The Economic and Market Research Department of the Florida Department of Citrus (FDOC) will soon release a study on the economic benefits that would accrue to the state of Florida if a new grove investment program were to be funded. The infrastructure remains in place to support a much larger Florida citrus industry.
Tom 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 FDOC.
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