Growers Faced Familiar Challenges as Late Rally Holds Hope for the Future
by TIM CRAIG
July marks the end of the 2020-2021 Florida citrus season, and for some growers, it’s been a season of both surprises and challenges. While there was a possible ray of positive news late in the season, there are long-term issues the industry continues to battle.
As the season got underway, the USDA’s official October forecast predicted 57 million cases from Florida groves — a somewhat significant 15 percent drop from 2019-2020 final output of 67.3 million. The numbers continued to slide through the season, according to the monthly USDA forecast updates. In December, the forecast dropped to 56 million. In January it dropped to 54 million. By April and May, the forecast had dropped to 51.7 million.
June’s forecast update saw a slight late-season rally, up to 52.7 million boxes — 30 million for Valencia and 22.7 million boxes for non-Valencia oranges. The final forecast is scheduled to be published in mid- to late July. Final totals will be published later this year.
For growers, the season provided new challenges but also new points of hope.
“It was kind of a confusing season — we met our expected yield count, but the fruit quality levels were way down and we had trouble meeting the minimum brix levels pretty much all season,” said Charles Counter of Counter Ag Services in Haines City. “That was the biggest thing; but overall, the fruit prices were good and yield was OK.”
Counter said that part of the confusion through the year included what he described as a “beautiful, uniform bloom” that he had not seen in the past several years and which gave him hope for a higher-than-expected crop. However, after the bloom, the effects of the drought hit the trees hard.
“We went 45 days without rain, and that’s when the trees needed it the most,” he says. “That’s something we haven’t experienced before. The trees used all of their stored carbohydrates during that uniform bloom and when the rains didn’t come, their health suffered.”
The lack of rain and the long-term effects of greening took a toll on the trees, particularly the older ones. Counter said he saw a lot of dropped leaves and fallen branches. He started a regimen of spray fertilizers to feed the root system and to try to build the trees back up and get the crop back on track. The extra efforts paid off, particularly in the younger trees.
“The young trees responded well and have pretty much recovered by now,” he says. “Among our older trees, though, the recovery has been slower.”
For Rob Petteway of Petteway Citrus and Cattle in Zolfo Springs, the bloom was a good sign; but that was before the effects of the drought.
“When that bloom happened, I thought, ‘This is going to be great,’ but by May 1, the groves looked terrible, with dead limbs, especially on the trees that were 20-plus years old,” says Petteway. “But now when I go out to the groves, I see that things are looking stronger. Since we’ve been getting rain, things are coming back pretty decent. You know, orange trees are pretty resilient.”
The dry weather caused other surprises, including a delay in picking some of the Valencia oranges, according to Petteway. “They kept waiting to get the brix ratios to where they wanted them,” he says. “It was a nightmare to get the fruit picked.”
Petteway also said that the production side faced setbacks at overwhelmed processing plants.
“Because of COVID, the processing plant had to lay a bunch of people off,” he says. “Then, because of the extra government money that became available during the pandemic, they couldn’t hire enough people and there were a couple of lines that couldn’t run. So there were problems all the way around.”
The challenges growers faced this season exist under the looming, continual threat of greening that has plagued the industry for over 15 years. For Ray Royce, the Executive Director for the Highlands County Citrus Growers Association, and the growers he sees during the season, these issues are intertwined.
“Obviously the rains late in the season helped out a lot, but looking back, my biggest concern is that we cannot continue to withstand a 30-50 percent drop rate,” he says. “We’ve learned to keep a tree viable, how to have a good bloom and for the tree to function, but the question now is how do we get a higher percentage in the truck?”
Royce said he sees trees three to four months out from harvest that look healthy, but when he sees the color of the stems, he knows that the fruit will eventually shake loose before harvest. He also said that he’s not hearing growers share success stories about things they can try that work to combat these issues.
“It’s going to come down to growers sharing information with each other and we need the research community to make a short-term priority on how to get higher quality at the end of the season,” he says. “I say ‘short-term’ because we don’t have time for a multi-year study and published research, we need people’s best-educated ideas and take those ideas out of the small, research groves and get those trees out into a real-world situation. Long-term, we need an answer as to how we breed ourselves out of this situation. How do we breed resistant or tolerant trees for the next generation?”
Despite it all, though, both Counter and Petteway took the ups and downs of this season in stride and remain committed to and positive about Florida’s citrus future.
“I think that because of the uniform bloom and the late rally, we could see a more uniform size of the fruit and the maturation could be more consistent next season,” says Counter. “Every season seems to be different because of the effect of the greening, but the groves are still alive and a lot of people didn’t think that would be possible when we first started seeing (greening) 15 years ago.”
For Petteway, part of his optimism for the future can be seen in his certified greenhouse citrus nursery that operates as part of Petteway Citrus and Cattle and produces over 50,000 trees per year.
“We keep selling citrus trees, so I don’t think (the industry) is going anywhere,” he says. “Every year has its problems and every year has its bright spots, but we will always remain very bullish on citrus.”