Orange juice prices are on the rise after Florida citrus production plummeted this year and dragged down the country’s supply of the iconic fruit.
Experts attribute the losses in Florida to Hurricane Ian and a bacterial disease that has plagued the state’s citrus trees for decades.
The state’s orange yield is set to be 43% lower than expected, based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s final estimate of the season, released in July. Originally set to produce 28 million boxes — at about 90 pounds of oranges per box — Florida is now forecast to provide only 15.8 million.
The slump for the country’s top orange producer has caused an overall downturn in U.S. production. The U.S. produced 15.3 million fewer boxes than expected this year, and about 80% of the shortfall was supposed to come from Florida, USDA data shows.
The trend has already caused price increases at grocery stores.
The average cost of orange juice concentrate was $2.89 in July 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This July, the price had climbed to $3.36.
“Our consumers of orange juice citrus products have been experiencing inflation at the grocery, in general,” said Marisa Zansler, director of economic and market research at the Florida Department of Citrus. “One thing we’ve noted in our category is that consumers are still showing a strong willingness to pay for orange juice.”
Zansler noted that could change if prices continue to rise, and the Department of Citrus is monitoring retail data closely.
Industry representatives trace the production setback to Hurricane Ian in September 2022, which hit major growers soon after the season got underway. High winds shook fruit and leaves from branches, thinned trees and flooded farmlands.
Hurricane Nicole in November 2022, and a winter freeze in January 2023, caused further stress on the harvest.
“It’s probably one of the most difficult seasons, probably in a generation,” said Matt Joyner, executive vice president of Florida Citrus Mutual. “We’ll be down from the heyday of this industry, probably more than 90%, and more importantly, down more than 60% from the prior season.”
Florida orange production has been declining for some time. For the past two decades, growers have battled widespread citrus greening disease — a bacterial infection spread by insects that attacks the vascular system of trees. Once infected, the trees become less productive and eventually die.
Past storms also play a role in the decline: Hurricane Ian arrived just as trees replanted after Hurricane Irma, in 2017, were becoming productive, Joyner said.
Last year’s storms will likewise have a long-term impact. Many growers lost tree density or entire plants — and those that weren’t lost sustained lasting damage.
“Impacts from hurricanes, like what we sustained from Ian and Nicole, are a multiyear event,” he said. “We’re not talking about row crops that are plowed and replanted every year … that kind of damage to the tree, plus the pure stress on the tree from the hard winds and those flooding conditions — it takes trees time to recover.”
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The state is now set to produce its lowest yield of oranges since 1935, the Florida News Service reported earlier this year. California, the country’s second-largest orange producer, is set to overtake Florida by producing about 44 million boxes.
California is not producing significantly more oranges than usual, USDA data shows. The decline in the Sunshine State is just especially sharp.
This year’s losses have broader implications for the state’s economy, Zansler said. A report by the University of Florida’s Economic Impact Analysis program estimated that, in a typical year, the citrus industry is responsible for about $6.9 billion in economic activity for the state. This estimate includes both direct income from orange production, as well as supporting industries and services around farms.
UF researchers in February predicted citrus production losses of around $247 million after Hurricane Ian; but Zansler estimated that once final tallies are completed in 2024, the shortfall will be even higher.
But growers still hold optimism for future seasons, noting they are well-practiced at this point when it comes to rebuilding after tropical storms.
New therapies to stave off the effects of greening disease are also showing promise, experts say. Trees that are being planted today are bred to be more resistant to the disease.
“Citrus growers are pretty resilient,” said Steve Smith, executive vice president of the Gulf Citrus Growers Association. “We see the future of the industry rebounding.”