2015-16 Citrus Forecast: Experts take a look down the path of this year’s harvest season

JUST AS CITRUS GROWERS have done for many years, area industry folks gathered together to listen to the estimates for the upcoming harvest via the USDA Citrus Crop Forecast.

With chicken and ribs on the menu at Baxter Troutman’s ranch, history added yet another year to its log. Troutman says the location, Dark Hammock, is a spot where there’s a cluster of trees allowing cattlemen to rest for the night while cattle were contained in a pen. “Long before the explosion of the information age, the radio was used as our primary mass communication tool. Before the advent of television, families would huddle around a radio for both news and information,” he says. “It is only in keeping to this long-standing tradition that this is still the medium used today, and for this event.”

“Dark Hammock also falls into this deep tradition category, as its name was derived from cattle pioneers who — before barbed-wire fences — used a communal cattle corral located on this site as a holding location which was only one day’s horseback ride from the market in present-day Sarasota,” Troutman elaborates.

Over time, growers have had a variety of worries and glories to experience — that one fact remains the same. And, like growers many years in the past, today’s industry professionals have tenacity and hope as they struggle with citrus greening and hope for the best.

KEVIN UPDIKE, incoming president of the Polk County Farm Bureau, does not foresee any major changes in the upcoming season. “I believe the citrus season is going to be much like last year’s season,” he predicts.

“The only difference I can tell,” Updike continues, “is that the trees seem to have responded positively to the rains we have been getting, with full leaf expansion and aggressive flush that has not been evident in the last three to five years.”

Another change will be noted when some growers are no longer in the business. Citrus greening, the growing population, and suburbanization are such obstacles that not all citrus growers in Florida will stick around, Updike predicts. “Greening will affect groves to the point in which some growers will want to sell out and not battle it with new plantings and aggressive management,” he says.

He predicts that the industry is going to shrink in acreage, particularly on the juice side, and shift back to a larger fresh fruit market. “The juice side will always be here,” Updike adds, “but if you look at world consumption of orange juice, it is down — with heavy competition from many other drinks.”

“If you look for a piece of fresh citrus, it’s as easy as finding it on the shelf of a convenience store, or even on a counter at McDonald’s, with a wide range of varieties and ingenious packaging,” he points out. “As they have in the past, growers will adapt to the changes in consumer wants and needs, and this industry will continue.”

MARISA ZANSLER, economic and market research director for the Florida Department of Citrus, says experts will continue to watch the market. “We will be reviewing the production trends, specifically trends associated with tree replanting efforts and fruit yields across varieties, to evaluate the impact on declining production,” she says. “We anticipate that production would continue to decline, yet we are hopeful that the decline will decrease at an increasing rate. It is too soon to call this a trend.”

According to SHANNON SHEPP, interim executive director of FDOC, things might even improve for some. “Some growers may actually see increased production this season, while others will continue to struggle. What may be different, in the aggregate, is a decrease in what had been a precipitous rate of decline,” she says.

KYLE STORY, vice-president of The Story Companies, is looking at the bright side. “I am hopeful that growers will be able to produce the highest quality product for our consumers that we can, given the HLB — or greening — environment,” he says. “Committed growers that are taking the necessary care measures for their groves are seeing the benefits of those programs.”

Like his colleagues, Story acknowledges the continuing impact of citrus greening on the industry. “Growers continue to deal with the effects of HLB on the health of the tree, the size of the fruit, and the crops’ yield,” Story says. “However, the industry is seeing improvements in all of these areas in South Florida and parts of Central Florida. I am hopeful this trend will continue.”

Citrus greening has not dampened the optimism expressed by many growers, including Story. “I am excited about the future of the industry,” he says. “We have many new varieties and promising rootstocks that show tolerance to HLB. New applications, methods and materials are restoring health to the existing trees. Planting incentive programs are giving growers reasons to continue their re-investment in the Florida citrus industry, including my family.”


Zansler of the FDOC agrees there are positives on the horizon in dealing with greening — it’s just going to take time. “There have been promising advancements in citrus greening mitigation strategies, such as stronger CHMA programs and replanting efforts, but the benefits of these strategies are far from being fully realized industry-wide,” she points out. “Additionally, tree mortality/removal rates appear to outpace the rate of replanting. However, if the data are any indication, this, too, is a trend on the mend.” As with any agricultural industry, the Florida citrus industry faces the threat of alternative land uses associated with “suburbanization,” she says. “Of particular note is that the industry faces a long-run production scenario under which producers and industry stakeholders must devote considerable resources towards reversing the devastating impacts of HLB.”

Producers are challenged with higher costs of production and lower profitability margins,” Zansler observes. “At the same time, producers are working collectively within grower organizations and with industry stakeholders to develop mitigations strategies that will provide the necessary confidence to reinvest in their groves. The industry faces a long-run production scenario that suggests the reversing the declining trend in production will happen over several years, but there are signs of progress in that direction, such as the TAP programs and CHMAs.”

“The bottom line is that, while citrus production has declined significantly for more than a decade, due to HLB and other citrus diseases, higher prices for citrus products have kept the industry afloat so far. The Hodges study we presented to the Commission indicated that the ‘total economic output, value added and labor income impacts have declined only marginally, and the iconic citrus industry remains an important contributor to the Florida economy,’” Zansler reports. “It is highly likely that the industry will face similar declines for several seasons to come, but there is hope that the ‘free fall’ from the 2013–14 season is somewhat cauterized. However, given the uncertainty that exists — favorable weather conditions, for one — the Florida citrus industry still remains in a vulnerable state.”

Many growers are on board in terms of participating in various programs to promote elimination of greening and new crops, interim FDOC director Shepp notes. “Anecdotally, we are hearing some encouraging things about willingness to replant. As one large grower recently said to me, ‘We are going to grow through this.’ ”

The industry has faced many dramatic challenges over the last 80 years, including devastating freezes, hurricanes, pests, and disease. “Every single time, the growers who make this industry what it is have found a way to bounce back,” Shepp asserts. “They will again do so in the case of HLB — we just don’t know yet when that ‘bounce’ will start.”

“For some of our growers, it probably already has. As an industry, though, it’s obvious that we have a long road ahead of us. There is no doubt in my mind that Florida’s citrus growers are up for the challenge,” Shepp continues, “and I can tell you that the Florida Department of Citrus looks forward to playing our part as we move forward. It won’t be easy for any of us — but it will be worth it. They are not going to throw up their hands and quit.”

As for longtime citrus grower BAXTER TROUTMAN, it’s not even possible to picture a future in Florida without citrus growers. “There’s too much rich history, and there are too many pioneer families with the industry in their blood,” Troutman states. “They are not going to throw up their hands and quit. It’s not about the job. It’s a lifestyle. Giving up would be like giving up your identity. They are going to fight until the bitter end. And everyone else should be glad for that, because they are the guys who create all the jobs.”


article by MARY TOOTHMAN

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