Florida Citrus Takes a Licking, But Not From Greening

For a number of years now, Florida citrus has been pummeled by disease. Citrus canker appeared first, only to be supplanted by a newer scourge, citrus greening. Orange production alone cratered from a peak of 244 million 90-lb. boxes in 1997-98 to 68.36 million (or 68.75 million, depending upon the source) in 2016-17. But for the upcoming season, citrus production was predicted to be higher than at any time in the past five years.

Then Hurricane Irma scoured the state.

On October 12 the USDA issued its first citrus crop forecast for the 2017-18 season, estimating a harvest of 54 million boxes of oranges. That would make it the smallest production since the 1946-47 season. Prior to Irma, a respected citrus consultant forecast an orange crop of 75.5 million boxes. But the USDA’s number was viewed skeptically by people in the industry. Larry Black, the general manager of Peace River Packing Co., said that the forecast underestimated the rate of fruit drop caused by the hurricane.

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam was in agreement. Following release of the USDA forecast, he observed that “Some estimates would say that groves that were impacted by the hurricane will continue to experience significant fruit drop for weeks to come. So it’s just important I think that we continue to recognize that the damage done to Florida agriculture is still unfolding.” Other critics of the government statistics point out that additional influential factors overlooked by the USDA include wind damage to tree branches and limbs and flood damage to the root systems.

The U.S. Congress’s most recent disaster relief package did not include funds for Florida’s farmers; that remedy is still expected. But there’s another form of relief for the citrus industry that makes an accurate crop estimate essential: The lower the projected harvest – say, in the 30-40 million box range – the higher the prices growers can negotiate with juice processors and packinghouses. With that crucial consideration in mind, Florida Citrus Mutual, the trade group for the state’s citrus growers, asked the USDA to delay its October forecast until it can conduct a comprehensive fruit survey. The request was turned down.

No matter how the question of storm-related damage is resolved, the cloud of citrus greening has not dissipated; there is still no known cure for the disease. Accordingly, as it has done for several years, Richard Lyons’ Nursery is advising homeowners against planting citrus in their yards.

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