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Iconic Florida citrus industry facing potentially disappointing orange harvest again

Iconic Florida citrus industry facing potentially disappointing orange harvest again

It is getting hard to grow Florida's official state fruit.
Monthslong droughts are broken by nasty hurricane seasons. Diseases that kill and damage citrus trees and fruit continue to spread. Urban sprawl is replacing groves.
Florida is second only to Brazil in global orange juice production and puts out more than 90 percent of all juice consumed in America.
But as the October harvest approaches, some growers are forecasting a gloomy citrus season for the Sunshine State.
The price of future-delivery juice contracts on the New York exchange have reached record highs, and if the worst predictions of a crop shortage come true, the cost to consumers will follow suit.
Orange juice retail prices are already up 8 percent this year over last, and consumers have responded by buying less (a 7 percent dip in gallons sold).
"We're just sitting here working as hard as we can to keep our head above water with all of the adversities that've been thrown our way," said Philip C. "Flip" Gates Jr., vice president of Kanawha Groves.
Until hurricane season ends Nov. 30 and the potential for a winter freeze passes next spring, the best prediction anyone can offer about Florida's citrus harvest is an educated guess.
Two well-respected Florida analysts using complicated mathematical formulas and sampling techniques reached two very different conclusions. Citrus Consulting International put the orange harvest at 123 million boxes, which would be the worst since 1988, when a wave of freezes crippled the industry. Louis Dreyfus Citrus put the figure at 160 million boxes. A box weighs 90 pounds (40.5 kilograms).
Both estimates are well short of the 220 million-box average Florida produced before the hurricanes whipped through in 2004 and 2005 and more in line with last season's 150 million-box haul in July.
Elizabeth Steger, Citrus Consulting's founder, traces the disappointing forecasts to the low numbers of fruit per tree.
"We have several live trees with no fruit," she noted. "It was obvious to me that we had a smaller crop. I believe the last two hurricane seasons impacted the older tree production."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's official projection, which is based on its citrus tree count, does not come out until Oct. 12.
But the tree census, released this month, amounted to more bad news. The USDA determined Florida had 621,373 acres (248,549 hectares) of citrus, a 17 percent drop from two years ago. A main contributor was a failed public policy that mandated the destruction of all trees within 1,900 feet (570 meters) of one testing positive for canker, a disease that causes fruit to blemish and drop prematurely.
Eight million commercial orange trees were destroyed over 10 years before the program was abandoned in January, when officials determined cutting them down could not prevent the disease's spread because hurricane winds already blew it all over Florida.
Bob Terry, an administrator at the USDA's Florida field office, said the canker push was the single greatest cause of tree loss.
But worsening it, he said, were "land values shooting really, really high and groves being sold for developments."
Growers are trying to remain optimistic. Doug Bournique, executive vice president and general manager of Indian River Citrus League, said the size and sugar content of the fresh oranges grown in his region so far are much better than recent years.
"All of the parameters that you gauge quality by, and appearance, are top-drawer this year, really exceptional," he said.
However, Bournique knows nothing is certain in this industry. The season looked promising last year, too, until Hurricane Wilma tore across South Florida at the end of October _ a late run for Atlantic storms.
"We were set up for a decent season then, and boom, 70 percent of the fruit in St. Lucie and 80 percent in Martin County were on the ground," he said.


Updated : 2021-05-08 09:57 GMT+08:00