More bad news for citrus industry even as crops rebound

This year, Florida orange groves bounced back much quicker than expected and produced 71.4 million boxes.

It’s been more than two years since Hurricane Irma ravaged Florida’s citrus market, and the bad news continues.

The September 2017 storm flooded groves and uprooted trees across the state, including Osceola, causing some $750 million in losses.

Last year, lawmakers poured $340 million into assisting the ailing citrus industry, which for years also has suffered because of citrus greening – one of the most deadly plant diseases in the world.

After Irma, Florida orange production dropped from 68.7 million boxes in 2017 to 45 million boxes in 2018. This year, Florida orange groves bounced back much quicker than expected and produced 71.4 million boxes.

But now that Florida’s citrus crops are rebounding, there’s another problem: Too much citrus.

Orange juice processors that previously had deals with Florida growers have turned to growers in Mexico and Brazil to supply the citrus.

“It is dire. This is real,” Florida Senate Agriculture Chairman Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, told the Florida News Service earlier this month.

Albritton, a citrus grower who has served as chairman of the Florida Citrus Commission, estimated 13 percent to 16 percent of the production in the current growing season could be left unharvested.

Florida short-term oversupply of oranges for 2020 will cause a sharp drop in the estimated price from $2.60 to $1.60 per box, likely putting many local citrus growers out of business.

The market glut has prompted Florida Congressmen Darren Soto, a Democrat, and Ted Yoho, a Republican, to lead a bi-partisan effort to help Florida growers.

The lawmakers are asking U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to increase funding to purchase Florida orange juice from $45 million to $90 million.

“We should fight to protect Florida’s signature agriculture crop: orange juice,” read a letter from Soto and Yoho to Perdue.

“After many years of setbacks in the orange juice industry, due to citrus greening and hurricanes, it is a uniquely important call of action to protect growers this year,” they wrote.

Some Florida growers have indicated that without such protections for this year’s crop, many farmers face the prospect of closing down their orange operations, according to the congressman.

“We should fight to protect Florida’s signature agriculture crop,” the letter stated.

But citrus greening also remains a deadly threat to the Sunshine State’s citrus crops.

The industry has been in decline for years because of the disease, one of the most serious citrus plant diseases in the world, according to the USDA. Once a tree is infected, there is no cure and most affected trees die within a few years.

The state budget last year included $8 million for citrus research to find solutions for citrus greening, $5 million to support the Department of Citrus to market Florida citrus and orange juice, and $7.5 million for the Citrus Health Response Program focused on replanting healthy citrus trees destroyed by Hurricane Irma.