Hunt Bros. Packinghouse Closure Leaves Only 13 in Operation in Florida
by PAUL CATALA
In 1928, Florida had about 200,000 acres of citrus-producing groves, more than enough to keep machines and workers busy.
That’s the year Hunt Bros. Inc. citrus packinghouse in Lake Wales opened. This year, the packinghouse closed up shop.
Due to the devastating impacts of Hurricane Irma in 2017 and the severe cut in fruit supply, The Hunt Brothers’ packinghouse sealed its last carton May 6.
Hunt Bros. will still run about 4,000 acres of citrus groves with fourth-generation family members keeping the harvesters picking. When in operation, the packinghouse packed primarily oranges, grapefruit, and mandarins.
Frank Hunt III, a Hunt Bros. owner, told employees that in order to replant trees following Hurricane Irma, the company had to sell 1,000 acres of groves, reducing the fruit supply. That reduction, coupled with a loss of citrus other than Valencia oranges, made the company’s sole packinghouse financially unsustainable.
Daniel Hunt, Hunt Bros. cooperative president, says the loss of trees and citrus damage associated with the impacts of Hurricane Irma along with the ongoing citrus greening crisis were the main factors that led to the packinghouse’s closure. When the doors shut, the packinghouse had about 50 workers, each of whom will get assistance from Hunt Bros. to find other jobs in the citrus industry.
“Citrus greening makes producing quality citrus in Florida challenging. However, if prices remain high enough, it might be profitably done through things like CUPS (Citrus Under Protective Screen),” Hunt, 41, says. “Also, with Florida fruit supply continuing to contract packinghouses, it will continue to diversify what they handle, such as imports and other crops.”
Besides Lake Wales, Hunt says citrus greening also led to the demise of fresh fruit packing and shipping operations. More than 500 acres of grapefruit groves in the Immokalee and LaBelle areas were lost due to hurricane-related flooding.
Even though the packinghouse closed, Hunt says Hunt Bros will continue to grow citrus with its primary focus on oranges for the processing market. He cites Florida’s Natural Growers as providing competitive returns back to its growers.
In addition to focusing more on the processing market, Hunt says the company plans to lease out the 100,000-square-foot packinghouse warehouse and 880-pallet cooler space.
Hunt says the packinghouse closure was “tough,” but citrus greening impacted growers across the state and caused them to have to make hard business decisions.
“I am confident that research will eventually provide growers with the tools to thrive in a greening environment,” he says. “The goal is for Hunt Bros to still be growing citrus when that happens.”
According to the Florida Department of Citrus, with the Hunt Bros packinghouse closure, there are now only 13 packinghouses currently operating in Florida. In 2000, there were 106 in operation.