Florida Citrus Industry Expects 'Difficult' Growing Season. But Slowly, It's Rebounding

Nov 6, 2019

In this Sept. 13, 2017 file photo, an orange sits on a tree affected by Hurricane Irma, in Lake Wales, Fla. Southern Gardens Citrus, one of only a handful of orange juice-processing plants left in Florida stopped processing fruit on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019, in yet another sign of the havoc that diseases and Hurricane Irma have had on the fortunes of growers of the state’s signature crop. The company on Tuesday said it has stopped processing fruit at its plant in southwest Florida.
Credit Tamara Lush / AP Photo

Florida’s citrus industry is bracing for another difficult growing season. Florida Citrus Mutual CEO Mike Sparks says the deadly citrus greening disease, combined with loss of crops from Hurricane Irma, created a “perfect storm” for growers. He says that loss necessitated importing citrus.

“If the perfect storm couldn’t get any worse, it has. Since the hurricane, we’ve had an increase of imports,” Sparks told the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Environment and General Government Wednesday. “Some of our processors, of course, had to import some product to make up the shortfall. Those deliveries put us in a large inventory – and what we have today is downward pressure on grower returns.”

That downward pressure means as production costs are going up, growers are seeing less money.

Sparks calls orange juice the “bread and butter” of the state’s citrus industry. Nationwide, consumption of orange juice is down — at its peak, Sparks says nearly six gallons for every person in the U.S. was being consumed annually. Now, he says that’s around two gallons.

Yet, the news isn’t all bad: Sparks says the industry is slowly rebounding. After a dismal 2017 that saw about 45 million boxes produced, he’s projecting 74 million this season. That level of production still pales in comparison to 2007, when 170 million boxes were produced.

These numbers were presented to legislators ahead of the coming citrus growing season by Florida Citrus Mutual CEO Mike Sparks on November 6, 2019.
Credit Ryan Dailey / WFSU-FM

“We’re going in the right direction. Unfortunately, there is a long way to go. If we’re going to keep the infrastructure, if we’re going to keep the processing plants, the fresh fruit houses – most economists would peg 100 million boxes (in production) if not 110 million boxes to keep that infrastructure.”

The decline in citrus production has run concurrent with loss of fruit-bearing acreage. There are roughly 71,000 fewer bearing acres in the state today than 12 years ago. But the state has regained nearly 30,000 acres since the 2017-18 season, which hit a decade-low 361,800 viable acres.

There is no “silver bullet” that can eliminate citrus greening, Sparks says, which he calls the single greatest threat to citrus – as he says every commercial grove in Florida shows some level of the deadly disease. He says the future of the industry hinges on research to help combat citrus greening.

Florida’s citrus industry accounts for 50,000 jobs, making it in Sparks’ opinion “the backbone of rural Florida.”

“So, to fail is certainly not an option,” Sparks said.