Expectations in Industry Remain Mixed, but OTC Injections and Mild Hurricane Season Foster Optimism
by TERESA SCHIFFER
Is Florida’s citrus industry finally turning a corner when it comes to greening? The just-announced 2023-2024 season forecast sparked that new hope. The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued the first monthly citrus crop forecast of the 2023-2024 season on Oct. 12. The agency predicts the state will produce 20.5 million boxes of oranges this season, up from the 15.8 million boxes produced last year. In addition, it issued a forecast for 1.9 million boxes of grapefruit and 500,000 boxes of tangerines and tangelos.
“The promise of a comeback for Florida’s citrus industry is on the horizon for the first time in a long time,” says Matt Joyner, CEO at Florida Citrus Mutual. “Growers continue to see improvements in the groves — tree health is improving as a result of new therapies and the size of the fruit is larger and the quality is better than we’ve seen in recent years. We expect to continue to see the improving health of citrus trees and are confident the effects of treatments and disease-resistant varieties will be reflected in the data over time.”
Only time will tell for sure, but local growers are breathing a tentative sigh of relief this year as they head into the harvest season, citing fewer storms so far this hurricane season and new treatments that are available.
Kyle Story is Vice President of The Story Companies. His family has been producing citrus commercially in Central Florida since 1945, weathering plenty of challenges over the years and persevering through them all with steadfast determination. Story and his family have had their hands full battling the HLB greening disease over the last couple of decades, plus the severe weather events that periodically rattle the state.
As he evaluates his groves before this year’s harvest begins in earnest, Story shares his assessment of what he expects to see this season.
“I feel that we have a manageable crop, given all the extremes in weather that we’ve seen in the last 13 months, I think that’s a positive. I feel good about that,” he says. “These trees have had to weather a lot in that period of time. So I feel the crop is manageable, given those circumstances.”
Fran Becker, Senior Vice President of Peace River Citrus Products, maintains a reserved outlook on this year’s harvest.
“While we have a good fruit set on the trees right now, I expect the crop to be similar to last season for two reasons,” Becker details. “First, the fruit is small, smaller than last season at this time and well below what we would consider to be a ‘normal’ fruit size, and second, we have lost many groves in the past year for various reasons (development, disease, and high input costs due to inflation).”
Despite these impediments, Story is one grower who remains upbeat about the state of Florida’s citrus groves.
“I’m more optimistic about the tree health at this period of time, going forward,” explains Story “In a perennial crop, the tree health and the vigor that we see, given the strategies that we’ve deployed, that’s exciting.”
As researchers continue searching for effective ways to prevent citrus greening, or at least make trees more resilient to the disease, Story comments on what’s working in his groves to mitigate damage from the destructive bacterial infection.
He says oxytetracycline injections are the most effective method for preventing infection with HLB. “We’re seeing a very positive response.”
After the devastation brought by Hurricane Ian in September 2022, dealing with Hurricane Idalia this year was a breeze. While the storm did have a major impact on Florida, with FEMA declaring 16 Florida counties as disaster areas and estimating the total value of agricultural losses as up to $447.9 million, the citrus industry came through pretty much unscathed this time.
“We received very beneficial rain with no damage,” Story says of Idalia’s effects. “It was a welcome change from the previous hurricane season!”
Overall, the past year has been relatively easy for most of the state’s citrus growers. The main challenges have been the same ones growers have been coping with for years, presenting no real surprises.
“Citrus greening and weather, those have been our two obstacles going into this season,” according to Story. “So far, we seem to be doing well on both of those fronts.”
Growers like Story are hoping that this is the year that finally breaks a 20-year declining trend in the number of boxes harvested. Last season’s total of 15.8 million boxes of oranges was a dismal count that marked the lowest yield in a century.
“Depending on a couple of key factors, the range I see is between 20 million and 24 million boxes of oranges,” Story speculated prior to the USDA forecast announcement. “A lot of that is going to depend on the drop rate that the USDA will use, and also where the fruit size ends up being. We’re not exactly sure where either one of those are going to be at this point. By the time we get to December and January we’ll know a lot more about those key elements.”
“I speak to a lot of growers, and we’re optimistic,” says Story. “If the OTC, the oxytetracycline injections, continue to work and we continue to see improved tree health and better fruit quality and better fruit quantity as a result of that improved tree health, then we can start to turn the corner on some of the tree breeding programs and start to put trees in the ground that are resistant to citrus greening.”