TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida's citrus industry, struggling in a battle against a fatal citrus disease, will have a little bit sweeter season than projected in an initial forecast.
However, the outlook for the state's orange crop continues to be troubling.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's final forecast for the 2015-2016 citrus growing season, released Tuesday, projected that Florida will produce enough oranges to fill 81.5 million 90-pound boxes.
The seasonal outlook is up 1.5 million boxes from an October 2015 forecast, but down nearly 16 percent from the prior season's near five-decade-low of 96.8 million boxes.
"Today's final citrus crop forecast is yet another reminder of how far our state's signature crop has fallen," Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said in a statement. "Production is nearly 70 percent lower than it was 20 years ago, and the long-term future of Florida citrus depends on a breakthrough in the search for a long-term solution to greening.”
The industry has for decades seen agricultural land converted into residential and commercial property. But a major cause of the harvest dropping from a high of 244 million boxes in the 1997-1998 season is citrus greening, a disease that is deadly to the crop.
Putnam, who grew up in the citrus and cattle industry in Polk County, in March allowed growers to temporarily use three antibiotics that remain under review for a "special use exemption" by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency but have shown signs of controlling citrus greening.
Florida Department of Citrus Executive Director Shannon Shepp, whose agency has recently approved a streamlined budget that eliminated 20 of 46 positions, tried to put a positive spin on the season after the forecast was released.
"While the oranges and grapefruit are doing their job of growing on the trees, the department is kicking into high gear with strategic planning of programs to be implemented in the fall and winter," Shepp said in an email. "This is the time when we pull industry and agency partners together to align on global strategy and ensure we can execute in a way that allows consumers to feel the importance of Florida citrus in their daily lives, in their health and in our state's economy."
The state budget that went into effect July 1 includes $8 million to help fight citrus greening and $14.7 million for a citrus health response program within the Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services.
The orange harvest has been steadily going down, from 133.6 million boxes during the 2012-2013 growing season and 104.7 million boxes in the 2013-2014 season.
Meanwhile, the forecast for the grapefruit crop now stands at 10.85 million boxes, down 15.9 percent from the 2014-2015 season and off 40.9 percent from the 2012-2013 season, when 18.35 million boxes were filled.
A tax on each box help funds the Department of Citrus.
To prepare for next season --- the season's first USDA forecast will be made Oct. 12 --- the Department of Citrus crafted a $20.7 million budget based on a projection of up to 68 million boxes being filled. The agency's budget, nearly $10 million lower than in the current year, will also see a reduction in a tax growers pay to fund the department, something larger growers and Gov. Rick Scott demanded earlier this year.
While the final budget and the "box tax" rates on growers won't be set until October, the plan as it now stands would drop the rate from 23 cents to 10 cents on each 90-pound box of processed oranges. The tax could go from 19 cents to 10 cents for each box of grapefruit.