This was supposed to be the year Florida's citrus industry rebounded. After a decade of fighting a losing battle against a tree-killing disease and declining yields, growers thought this year's abundant crop promised a turnaround. Then, just weeks before harvest, Hurricane Irma hit.
"This was a real punch in the face," said Andrew Meadows, spokesperson for citrus trade organization Florida Citrus Mutual.
Overcome by almost $800 million in losses from the hurricane, the state' citrus industry is suddenly facing its lowest orange yield in 75 years, far worse than forecasts expected just a couple months ago.
Nearly 60 percent of all citrus in the country comes from the Sunshine State, bringing in $1 billion in sales each year, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Though damage is still being assessed, the latest numbers released by the state put expected losses at roughly $761 million.
Early estimates suggest that this year's crop will be the single lowest yield since 1942.
Florida Citrus Mutual conducted a survey of growers around the state, accounting for about two-thirds of the state's citrus acreage. Based on responses, the group estimates the industry's orange levels are currently at 31 million 90-pound boxes, the unit of measure for citrus crop yield.
Prior to the storm, forecasts were counting on a yield more than twice that size: between 68.7 million and 75 million.
"This would have represented the first production increase in five years," said Shannon Shepp, executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus, in an email. "Sadly, that's no longer the case."
Just how devastated the orange crop is longer-term won't be fully known until the season bears out next year, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture will release its crop estimates at noon Thursday. Adam Putnam, Florida commissioner of agriculture, and Meadows of Florida Citrus Mutual hold little hope it will reflect the latest damage.
Florida Citrus Mutual estimated that 50 to 60 percent of Florida's orange crops have been wiped out, setting the stage for a truly rough recovery.
Much of the damage from Irma was concentrated in a cluster of counties, according to the state agriculture department. Collier and Hendry counties were most severely affected, with 94,144 acres hit by hurricane-force winds.
Next were Lee, Brevard, Glades, Charlotte, St. Lucie, Highlands, Indian River, Okeechobee, DeSoto, Hardee and Osceola counties, in which 254,956 acres experienced gusts of the same strength. About 72,076 acres in Polk and Martin counties were affected by tropical storm-force winds.
An ailing industry
While Hurricane Irma delivered the most recent blow the industry, a bacterial disease is what teed Florida citrus up for devastation.
For more than a decade, citrus growers have battled a disease known as greening, which attacks and eventually kills trees.
"Production has been pretty severely affected by it," said Ariel Singerman, assistant professor of agricultural economics at the University of Florida.
According to Singerman, production plummeted 70 percent since about 2003, just before the first instance of greening in Florida was discovered in 2005. At that time, Florida orange yield was forecasted at 242 million boxes for the 2003-2004 season.
Four hurricanes during 2004 and 2005 further knocked down production numbers.
Smaller growers, Singerman said, had a tougher time weathering the problems the disease brought. They, too, will likely have the most difficulty coping with damage brought by Hurricane Irma.
The only bright light for growers is that they will likely benefit from slightly higher prices on oranges if their fruit made it through the storm.
Rebuilding and rebounding
Despite the industry's current state, experts are optimistic that citrus will come back from the damage. One element stakeholders consider key to recovery is federal assistance.
"The one area that doesn't historically have a standing program of assistance is disaster assistance for agriculture, for the things we grow in Florida," Putnam said Wednesday to state Congressional representatives.
He and Gov. Rick Scott are asking for an extra $2.5 billion to be added to the $36 billion disaster relief package up for vote by Congress this week. If Putnam and Scott get their way, the U.S. Department of Agriculture would administer the money through a relief program.
"I don't know what to think if we don't get some sort of relief," Florida Citrus Mutual's Meadows said. "That could spell disaster for the industry beyond what we've already seen."
Contact Malena Carollo at [email protected] or (727) 892-2249. Follow @malenacarollo on Twitter.