TALLAHASSEE — Production numbers for Florida’s orange crop continue to decline as the citrus industry’s storm-battered season nears an end.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Friday issued a forecast that said Florida growers this season are on pace to fill 15.65 million boxes of oranges, which would be the lowest total since the 1934-1935 season. The new forecast also was down from an April projection of 16.1 million boxes.
Florida growers produced 41.2 million boxes of oranges during the 2021-2022 session, which itself saw a large decline.
While additional numbers will be released in June and July, Florida Citrus Mutual CEO Matt Joyner called Friday’s forecast “the end of a difficult harvest season” and said the focus has turned to next season. In addition to sustaining heavy damage in last fall’s Hurricane Ian, the industry has battled for two decades against deadly citrus greening disease and development pressures.
“There are many reasons for Florida growers to be optimistic about the comeback of Florida’s signature crop,” Joyner said. “New treatment methods applied this season are proving effective. The Florida Legislature delivered tremendous support for the industry in the form of funding for greening research, replanting assistance and hurricane relief.”
Lawmakers last week passed a proposed 2023-2024 budget that would increase funding for different aspects of the citrus industry to about $65 million.
If the spending is approved by Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services would get $49.5 million for citrus protection and research, including large-scale field trials on trees that are resistant to Huanglongbing, which is the formal name for citrus greening, and pests. Among other things, the state Department of Citrus would get $5 million for marketing.
The budget for the current year, which will end June 30, includes $37 million to assist the citrus industry.
Just over two decades ago, the state produced about 200 million industry-standard 90-pound boxes of oranges and 50 million boxes of grapefruit a season.
The federal forecast Friday gave grapefruit production a slight boost, putting it at an estimated 1.8 million boxes this season. That was up from 1.6 million boxes in a March forecast and 1.7 million boxes in an April forecast.
But that is still down from 3.33 million boxes produced during the 2021-2022 growing season.
Friday’s forecast for specialty crops, listed as tangerines and mandarins, held steady for a third consecutive month at 500,000 boxes. Last season, specialty crops filled 750,000 boxes.
Combined, the box count would be the lowest since the 1929-1930 season, when the industry faced a Mediterranean fruit-fly invasion and growers were still recovering from severe hurricanes in 1926 and 1928.
The 2022-2023 season’s first forecast came in October, shortly after Hurricane Ian hit the state in late September and caused widespread damage to groves. The growing season, which ends in June, also took a hit from a winter freeze.
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John Kiernan, president and chief executive officer of the Fort Myers-based Alico Inc., a major citrus grower, said in a quarterly earnings report last week that the company is focused on preparing groves for the 2023-2024 season.
“Based upon prior experience with storms of this nature (Ian), we anticipate it may take up to two full seasons, or more, for our groves to recover to pre-hurricane production levels,” Kiernan said in the report.
“Alico has been able to navigate through the impacts of Hurricane Ian and unseasonably warm and dry weather over the past several months only through the investments and actions that the company has taken over the past several years,” Kiernan added.
Alico blamed a decline in production to greater fruit drop caused by Ian, though it noted it received $1.6 million in gross proceeds from selling 278 acres of ranchland.
In a prepared statement, Kiernan said the company had received about $13.7 million in crop-insurance money over the first four months of 2023, with additional claims pending.
The industry also continues to await federal storm assistance approved in December, though the allocation process remains unclear.
By Jim Turner, News Service of Florida