Florida’s citrus crop will be smaller than last year, according to the latest estimates by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The January estimate was 142 million boxes, which reflects a projected decline of three million boxes of Valencia oranges since the 2011-2012 harvest season.
Specialty citrus was holding its own, according to the forecast, with 1.1 million boxes of tangelos, 3.8 million boxes of tangerines, and 18 million boxes of grapefruit anticipated. Valencias were projected at 76 million boxes.
“Several variables such as rainfall, disease pressure, fruit size, and significant fruit drop has made it a very tricky year for crop forecasting,” says Michael W. Sparks, executive vice president and chief executive officer of Florida Citrus Mutual, a Lakeland-based growers’ cooperative. “Fruit drop in Early-mids and small sizes in Valencias are most likely the cause of this decrease.”
“It’s a manageable number. We’re in line with what we’ve historically produced the last three years,” adds Andrew Meadows, Citrus Mutual’s communication director.
The USDA issues periodic estimates based on its surveys. The initial estimate for this year’s crop was 154 million boxes. Florida’s citrus industry has a $9 billion annual impact and employs nearly 76,000. The crop was at 133.7 million boxes in 2009-2010, then rose to 140.5 million in 2010-11, and 146.6 million in 2011-2012.
Lower yields would affect those funded by the citrus box tax, which generates about $25 million for marketing. At the estimated yield, it would mean an $800,000 loss to the marketing budget, reports Douglas Ackerman, executive director for the state Department of Citrus. “It’s not ideal. We’d like to have as much money as we can (for marketing),” Ackerman says. “It just goes to show the challenging environment our growers face.”
Ackerman believes the numbers undeniably reflect the affects of citrus greening, also called Huanglongbing (HLB), a disease spread by the Asian psyllids. “HLB is showing it’s impacting the Florida crop,” he elaborates. “As that fruit gets larger and heavier, you could start to see more drop. … We want to keep as much of it on the tree as we possibly can.”
Growers are demonstrating resiliency in the wake of greening, recognizing it is just one of several major challenges faced through the years. “The problem with greening is not insurmountable,” says Scott Young, a director of the Polk County Farm Bureau who owns/manages 400 acres of citrus in Alturas. “I’m confident they’ll come up with something.”
For now, the dollar value of orange juice sales not from concentrate is up 3.7 percent as people struggle with colds and the flu, Ackerman points out. “It’s performing very well.”
story by CHERYL ROGERS