Area Growers Optimistic, Though Accepting of a New Normal
by TIM CRAIG
It’s October and eyes are looking toward the start of what may be Florida’s true season: citrus and the official citrus forecast published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“We’re glad to see the Citrus Forecast come out because it marks the unofficial start of our season, says Fran Becker at Peace River Citrus Products. “It kind of sets the tone.”
The citrus forecast allows people from all parts of the industry to put what they are seeing locally into a larger context, says Steven Callaham of the Dun-D Citrus Growers Association.
“All of us have an idea about our own areas, but we don’t get to see how others are doing across the state,” he says. “The citrus forecast gives us a better idea of how everyone is doing, it gives a much broader perspective.”
The total Florida orange forecast for 2019-2020 season will be 74 million boxes — up 3 percent from last season. Early, midseason, and Navel varieties in Florida are forecast at 32 million boxes — up 5 percent from last season. The Valencia forecast came in at 42 million boxes — or up just slightly from last season.
As the season kicks off with the forecast announcement, Callaham, Becker and other local growers are optimistic about their crops, as well as an acceptance of what may be a new normal.
The past two years have been anything but a “new normal.” The citrus industry in Florida is still recovering from the Hurricane Irma-wrecked season of 2017-2018.
However, last year’s numbers were near pre-hurricane totals. According to the USDA 2019 Citrus Fruits summary, Florida’s 71.8 million boxes in orange production was up 59 percent over the 2017-2018 season. All told, the Florida citrus industry accounted for $1.116 billion in revenue, which is still slightly down from the 2016-2017, pre-Irma value.
While it was slightly down, those numbers may be a “new normal” for Florida citrus as local growers look at the early shape of their crops. Overall, the growers were positive about how this year’s crop is shaping up in the early stages.
Callaham, whose Dun-D Citrus Growers Association collectively serves over 10,000 citrus acres across the state, says that last year’s numbers may be the where Florida citrus sits for the foreseeable future.
“Right now, we’re kind of trending toward what we had last year and I take that as an optimistic trend,” says Callaham. “We do know that the 17-18 season was severely hampered by Hurricane Irma, and that was somewhat of an anomaly. The results of this year’s crop may be the new normal.”
Dun-D Citrus debuted its Citrus Under Protective Screen (C.U.P.S.) system this past year, which seeks to limit the spread of greening while also increase efficiency and bolster growth. Callaham noted that he is seeing somewhat higher Valencia numbers based on what he’s seeing early on, but a little lower numbers in other varieties. “There may be a flip-flop in variety, but overall it will be similar to last year as far as total boxes go,” he says.
Vic Story of The Story Companies also noted a shift in the type of orange that is responding well in the early season.
“The question mark for us is the size,” says Story. “The Valencia size is fine, but some of the other varieties may not be as large, which could cut into the box count.
Story said his company, which includes over 7,000 acres in central and south Florida as well as management, marketing, and harvesting services for other growers, should be on par with last year. “Overall, I would say we’re very pleased with how we’re doing as growers,” he says, “and I expect the customers who partner with us and follow our program will also have similar results.”
Ellis Hunt of Hunt Brothers in Lake Wales noted that a shift in the weather over the past month may affect the overall crop moving forward. “We were blessed to have abundant rainfall over the summer, but then is stopped and we really haven’t had any significant rainfall since September 4,” he says.
Because September was so dry, all varieties are smaller, he says. While a grower can irrigate, irrigation techniques cannot equal a good rainfall.
“You’ll gain boxes if you can gain size, but the growth will depend on how much rain we get,” he says. “Only time will tell.”
Becker also noted the early-season rain and sunshine and dryness of the past month, but he remains positive for this year’s crop. “The crop looks good so far, we’ve had a good growing period early,” he says. “Thankfully there have been no hurricanes — we have to be vigilant, but every day that goes by is a day closer to the end of hurricane season.”
Becker noted that while some of his varieties are doing better, he’s noticing a trend among is middle-aged and older trees and how they are reacting to greening. “The middle and older trees seem to have a better health response over the years than the younger trees,” he says. “So our crop looks good so far.”
Peace River, which has groves all around the state as well as facilities in Arcadia, Bartow, Labelle, and Frostproof, has already started packing at some of their facilities and the processing plant in Bartow will be gearing up soon.
For Les Dunson of Dunson Harvesting, a grove management and harvesting services company in Winter Haven, it may be difficult to match some of last year’s numbers, particularly for Valencias.
“Part of that is due to the fact that we had such a large Valencia crop last year and repeating that number is going to be difficult,” he says. “We think we’re looking at a good crop and we’re looking for the forecast to confirm that.”