Is Florida orange juice, an image so integral to the state that the orange adorns the state license plate, soon to be on the endangered species list?
The latest numbers continue to reveal a citrus industry in an accelerating tailspin. Florida's orange crop will shrink to the lowest in 52 years, says the latest forecast by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as damage from citrus-greening disease persists.
In the season ending Sept. 30, Florida will collect 80 million boxes, the lowest since 1964, the USDA says. Last season, output was 96.8 million boxes, the lowest since 1966. The new forecast is a startling 17 percent drop in one year, raising questions of when — or if — Florida's citrus business will be able to stabilize.
The industry peaked at 244 million boxes 18 years ago, raising concerns that Florida's claim as the nation's citrus capital and the state's biggest crop may be fading.
"This initial citrus crop estimate confirms that Florida's citrus industry is in a fight for its life," Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said in a statement. "The health of Florida citrus is important to every Floridian, not just those who depend on it for their livelihoods."
He is seeking another $8.5 million in state money next year to raise the funding to fight citrus greening disease to $18.5 million. Putnam, whose Polk County family has deep roots in oranges, estimates the citrus industry's economic impact in the state exceeds $10.7 billion and supports more than 64,000 jobs.
The problem is that those dollar and job figures are inevitably shrinking along with the industry Putnam is eager to preserve. Orange juice faces attacks on a number of fronts, not just from greening disease but also from the rise of competing breakfast drinks, its consumer price, the loss of grove acreage to urban sprawl and past hurricane damages, as well as from dietary critics who say the juice contains large amounts of sugar.
Planted acreage in Florida, the top U.S. grower, has dropped to the lowest since at least 1966 as greening raises costs for farmers and discourages expansion.
Tom Spreen, emeritus professor of agricultural economics at the University of Florida, was surprised by the forecast, telling the Ledger in Lakeland that he "had no idea the orange number would be this low." He added the low prediction only intensifies the need to find a solution for citrus greening, which causes fruit to shrivel and drop from the trees.
Spread by the Asian citrus psyllids bug first discovered in Florida a decade ago, citrus greening has triggered the loss of at least 100,000 acres and $3.6 billion in state revenues since 2007.
It's too early to tell if new pesticides or new kinds of citrus trees being cultivated will help curtail the blight.
At the start of the 2015 legislative session, Putnam had asked for $8 million for the citrus industry but received $4 million. Gov. Rick Scott also vetoed another $1.25 million that was budgeted for the Department of Citrus to continue consumer awareness programs, conduct in-state citrus breeding and — no doubt a blow to the record numbers of tourists flocking to the state — provide free orange juice to travelers at state welcome centers on Interstates 10, 75 and 95 and U.S. 231.