Researchers Turn to New Cultivars to Rebound From Greening
by MARY TOOTHMAN
The Sunshine State is making some citrus-centric changes — such a new juice oranges and some new cultivar choices — to help the industry navigate obstacles. The decline in orange juice sales is the reason — at least in part — why new varieties and options are in order.
Jude Grosser, a University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) geneticist and plant breeder, specializes in this topic and has written multiple papers as well as a recent podcast interview. Grosser says orange juice now has serious competition from other juices and blends.
“We have got to up our game and deliver a very consistent and high-quality product.”
He discussed the ins and outs of cultivar changes during January’s “All In for Citrus” podcast — a joint project of UF/IFAS and AgNet Media. “In my opinion, the best way to combat that is to have a higher quality orange juice that is more colorful, more flavorful — that is going to be more attractive for the initial buyer,” Grosser says.
Another reason Grosser cited is the dawn out and damaging struggle with citrus greening, or HLB, which has plagued citrus growers in Florida since 2005. Virtually all trees eventually become infected. “We have to be able to grow oranges that can maintain their quality and sustain adequate growth for the farmers to make a living,” he says.
Grosser points out that early-season Hamlins and late-season Valencias have been Florida’s juice orange mainstays. “(Valencias are) considered the No. 1 juice orange in the world — whereas Hamlin has poor color and just mediocre flavor. Our program has focused on improving the juice quality.”
That can be achieved, he says, by offering Valencia-quality juice throughout the season.
He pointed out that there have been quite a few new orange cultivars developed. Most of those cultivars are addressed in a January 2020 Citrus Industry magazine article authored by Grosser and fellow UG/IFAD researchers Fred Gmitter and Bill Castle.
“Putting it all together, we think very soon we are going to have Valencia-quality oranges that run from November all the way through June,” Grosser says.
According to the article, Florida orange juice has always been the gold standard among the growing portfolio of fruit juices and blends available to consumers. But citrus greening threatens that status by causing reduced fruit production, lower juice quality and higher prices.
The combination of better orange cultivars, enhanced nutrition programs and improved rootstocks should give growers “a really good chance of being able to stay in business,” Grosser says. New, sweet orange cultivars for processing can be harvested throughout the Florida citrus season.
The University of Florida’s Citrus Improvement Team at the Citrus Research and Education Center (CREC) in Lake Alfred has worked for decades to develop new sweet orange cultivars.
They have the potential to improve the Florida citrus industry’s portfolio of oranges used to make the best not-from-concentrate (NFC) juice possible. The research has brought about the commercial release of many promising new cultivars. They have early, mid and late season maturity dates.
As Florida plants new trees to replace the quantity of trees compromised by HLB, growers look at difficult options on which cultivars to use. There has been some confusion regarding the expected harvest dates of these promising new cultivars.
The researchers said the Citrus Improvement Team has developed several new sweet orange options, and advised they should be part of the picture.
When combined with good rootstock choices and emerging nutrition programs, growers now have mid- and late-season scion options that can be planted with reasonably low risk. UF/IFAS Cultivar Release Guidelines have been established, and are offered via a “living document” online at ffsp.net/ufifas-cultivar-release-guidelines/
The University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) supports the “active and widely recognized cultivar development program.”