By Jim Turner, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — California surpassed Florida in a new estimate of orange production, the latest sign of continuing struggles in Florida’s citrus industry.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, in a monthly update released Friday, said Florida is forecast to produce enough oranges to fill 51.7 million 90-pound boxes by the time the 2020-2021 growing season ends in July. That is down 6.8 percent from a March forecast and would be 23 percent lower than production during the 2019-2020 season.
Meanwhile, the department forecast California’s production at 52 million boxes, the same as in a March forecast.
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said in a statement that the “latest forecast is concerning” while noting growers have long faced challenges, including citrus greening disease.
“I remain strongly committed to our continued support for Florida’s vital citrus industry, requesting this year from legislators $8 million for citrus greening research and over $6 million for citrus health response and pest eradication, and I’m encouraged by new research advances including citrus greening genetic resistance,” Fried said in the statement.
Shannon Shepp, executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus, issued a statement that said the citrus industry “remains a vital part of our state’s economy” but pointed to a need for support.
“While we expect production to vary from season to season, today’s forecast provides an important reminder that we cannot take this industry for granted,” Shepp said. “Growers need our support so that they may continue to produce great-tasting Florida citrus and support the small communities where citrus is grown. Citrus will always have a place in Florida, but we must work together to overcome the challenges growers are currently facing.”
Last year, Florida produced 67.4 million boxes of oranges, while California produced 54.1 million boxes. A year earlier, Florida produced 71.85 million boxes to 52.2 million boxes in California.
Texas is the next highest, with a projection of 1.05 million boxes this growing season. The industry uses 90-pound boxes as a standard benchmark.
Twenty years ago, Florida produced 223.3 million boxes of oranges and 46 million boxes of grapefruit, nearly five times the production from California.
Setting aside the 2017-2018 growing season, when growers sustained heavy damage in Hurricane Irma, Florida’s citrus production has been on a steady decline. Along with citrus greening disease, growers have struggled against residential and commercial development, foreign imports and hurricane impacts.
As part of a $95 billion budget proposal (SB 2500) for the upcoming fiscal year, the Senate is seeking to spend $17.7 million for citrus protection and research, with another $12.5 million to help the citrus industry take advantage of an increase in people buying orange juice during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We got a bump on orange juice consumption because of COVID,” Sen. Ben Albritton, a Republican and citrus farmer from Wauchula, said when introducing the agriculture portion of the budget on March 24. “But the way that the industry views that is that that won’t stick around forever. So what we have to do is, we have to invest resources, invest funds to make sure that orange juice and citrus products with their Vitamin C and their disease fighting capabilities, they are front of mind for the consumer.”
The proposed $97 billion House budget (HB 5001) includes $3 million for citrus disease research and another $3 million for advertising.
Lisa Pate, a mathematical statistician with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, noted that in preparing the latest monthly update, Valencia oranges were seen to have a “droppage” rate of 41 percent, a record high for a non-hurricane year for fruit to fall before reaching maturity.
Also lower in the latest forecast was grapefruit production, now at 4.3 million boxes, down from 4.6 million boxes in the March forecast. And specialty crops — primarily tangerines and tangelos — declined from 1.05 million boxes in the March forecast to 950,000 boxes.
In the 2019-2020 growing season, Florida produced 4.85 million boxes of grapefruit and 1.02 million boxes of specialty crops.