TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s struggling citrus industry is projected to see a 3.3 percent increase in production in the newly started growing season.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, in its first citrus forecast for the 2019-2020 season that will run through July, projected Florida growers will produce enough oranges to fill 74 million of the industry-standard 90-pound boxes, which would top the 71.6 million boxes during the 2018-2019 season.
Grapefruit production is predicted to increase from 4.31 million boxes in the past season to 4.6 million boxes. And specialty crops, such as tangerines and tangelos, also will go up from 990,000 boxes to 1.05 million boxes, U.S. Department of Agriculture State Statistician Mark Hutson said Thursday in a conference call to announce the October estimates.
State Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried released a statement that said the forecast “reflects the resilience of Florida’s citrus growers, dedication to the citrus industry and commitment to innovation in the face of challenges.”
The industry has for more than a decade seen acreage and production numbers decrease as it battles deadly citrus-greening disease, along with development pressures and changes in drinking habits.
Florida Citrus Commission Chairman Ellis Hunt called the newly released outlook “a positive indicator that the Florida citrus industry is coming back.”
Florida Department of Citrus executive director Shannon Shepp added that the forecast “reflects what we’ve been hearing from growers.”
“Florida citrus is here to stay,” Shepp said. “We remain the state’s signature crop and our growers are committed to providing nutritious, great tasting Florida citrus for years to come.”
Fried has asked state lawmakers as they piece together the budget for next fiscal year to include $8 million for citrus research projects, $7.4 million for citrus health and fighting pests and diseases and $2.5 million to support the Citrus Inspection Trust Fund.
Legislators approved $18 million for citrus-greening research in the current fiscal year.
Meanwhile, the state also is moving forward with a new law that could open the door to some citrus land being used to grow hemp. Last month, Fried’s office advised lawmakers that Florida farmers might not be held back from planting hemp next spring even if federal officials have not signed long-awaited rule changes about hemp cultivation.
The new state law, passed during the 2019 legislative session, created a program to regulate cultivation of hemp, addressing issues such as the licensing of growers.
The latest citrus numbers would keep Florida as the nation’s top orange producer, a position that was lost during the 2017-2018 season after Hurricane Irma caused massive damage to groves.
Florida is projected to account for 60 percent of the nation’s orange crop during the 2019-2020 season, followed by California at 38 percent.
The forecast noted that Florida’s citrus growing areas had experienced mostly favorable weather leading up to the bloom period, with only the Indian River district facing “abnormally dry conditions.”
“Growers were optimistic about a healthy crop and promising upcoming season,” the forecast said.
Little to no damage was observed from Hurricane Dorian, the Category 5 storm that devastated parts of the Bahamas last month but remained 70 to 100 miles off Florida’s East Coast. Rain bands from Dorian accounted for 1 to 3 inches of rain along eastern growing areas.
The report also noted that red and white grapefruit trees are producing the largest amount of fruit on average since the 2015-2016 season, with the individual size of red grapefruit above average.
Last month, Coca Cola, partnering with Japan-based Takasago, announced a $25 million investment that will lead to 1,500 acres of grapefruit trees being planted in western St. Lucie County with Peace River Citrus Produce and the Scott Family Companies, both of Vero Beach.