Hurricanes, Greening Deal Devastating Blow to Growers
by PAUL CATALA
Despite a minute uptick in production in June and July, the final totals of the 2022-2023 citrus season revealed the definitive blow growers suffered from hurricanes and greening.
The United States Department of Agriculture released its final forecast of 15.9 million boxes of oranges for the 2022-2023 Florida season. While that is up 1 percent from June, it’s down 26 percent from the previous season.
Also included in the latest USDA report:
- All Florida grapefruit: 1.8 million boxes (down 1 percent from June)
- Florida Valencia oranges: 9.7 million boxes (up 1 percent from June)
- Florida Non-Valencia oranges: 6.15 million boxes (unchanged)
- All Florida tangerines and tangelos: 480,000 boxes (down 2 percent from June)
In May, Shannon Shepp, executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus, said despite the problems Florida citrus growers currently face, “grit and determination” will bring a better future for Florida citrus. According to the department, the Florida citrus industry employs more than 33,000 people and has an annual economic impact of $6.935 billion to the state.
“Current crop forecast numbers serve as a testament to the impact of our industry’s hardships but cannot convey the future effects of cutting-edge research,” she stated. “Across the state, dedicated growers and leading scientists are developing and deploying emerging technologies and tactics to combat citrus greening, boost production and ensure Florida’s historic citrus industry is here to stay for generations to come.”
Rick Dantzler, chief operating officer for the Citrus Research and Development Foundation in Lake Alfred, says the 2022-23 season’s yields were primarily down due to Hurricane Ian, which hit Florida in late September, and Hurricane Nicole, which made landfall in Florida in early November. He estimates the state lost half of its crop due to the storms, and says long-term effects will impact trees that were partially uprooted, especially trees already infested with greening.
In more positive news, Dantzler says growers who treated their trees with antimicrobials have reported improvements and have said tree canopies are fuller and leaves look healthier.
“We have our fingers crossed that this will translate into higher yields next harvesting season. It’s an expensive therapy, but nearly every grower who can afford it is trying it; it will work,” he says.
Dantzler adds the research center is expecting less fruit drop and increased fruit quality from the application of plant growth regulators, which cause fruit to stick on the tree better and raise fruit quality up more than a full fruit-maturity Brix point, “which is huge.”
“We have research underway that is quantifying this, and growers are adopting several of these therapies,” Dantzler says.
Just like in the 2021-22 citrus season, some growers this year remain hopeful despite the ongoing challenges.
Christian Spinosa, 32, has been vice president of Dudley Putnam Inc., his family’s Bartow citrus company, for 12 years and is a fourth-generation citrus grower. The company owns about 1,000 acres of citrus in Polk County. He says the damage dealt by the recent hurricanes “definitely” caused this year’s yields to be lower. Like other growers, he says citrus greening just compounded growing, harvesting, and profitability issues.
“That’s what this hurricane really exposed was the amount of stress these trees were seeing with greening. In the end, I think that’s what led to most of the fruit drop we saw this year,” he says.
Spinosa says the challenge now is to “move forward” for 2023 with “new strategies and therapies.” Those include trunk injections and the use of Citrus Under Protective Screen (CUPS). He says Dudley Putnam has been using trunk injections in the majority of its trees and staff is experimenting with CUPS on young trees, although in a limited capacity due to the costs.
“We’ve seen some success with both. We’re definitely seeing the benefits once you pull the screen off – you see healthy leaves and healthy tissues,” he says. “We’re trying to get these trees back to a good, healthy level so we can hopefully recover from the hurricane.”
Looking ahead to the 2023-2024 season, Spinosa says tree health is good despite all the challenges.
“We went through a very stressful event, so we couldn’t have the blooms this year that we did last year. The name of the game is how much fruit we can save for profit. If we can prevent fruit drop, then we should have a better season than we did in ’23,” he says.
Forty miles southeast from Dudley Putnam, Ned Hancock of Hancock Citrus in Avon Park says this season was “the lowest crop of fruit we’ve picked in probably anybody’s lifetime.” The family-run citrus company has 800 acres — half in Highlands County and half in Hardee County — and manages another 600 to 700 acres combined within both counties.
Hancock, who has spent his whole life in citrus and bought his first grove at the age of 14 in 1972, grows mostly oranges and some tangerines. He says the combination of citrus greening and the 2022 hurricanes made for a “difficult” season. He says trees already compromised by citrus greening were especially hard-hit.
Hancock says his business uses trunk injections in about 60 percent of its trees, and he says he doesn’t have the capital to invest in CUPS.
Hancock estimates there was 70 to 80 percent fruit loss in Avon Park alone due to the combination of greening and hurricanes. He says that can have a two- to three-year impact on citrus. He says he and other growers have had difficulties trying to get federal Block Grant Assistance Act money to help them recuperate.
“We’re just trying to hang on for right now. We’ll have a much better crop next year than we had this year, but we still will not be where we need to be,” he says.