Citrus crop faces sharp drop -- amid fears it could go longer


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida's struggling orange crop is expected to drop 21 percent this growing season, a percentage some believe could become larger as farmers continue to suffer the effects of Hurricane Irma.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Thursday forecast that Florida will produce enough oranges to fill 54 million 90-pound boxes during the 2017-2018 season. That number would be down from a decades-low 68.7 million boxes in the past growing season.

The forecast isn't good for an industry that has been in a steady decline due in large part to the impact of deadly citrus greening disease. Growers reported crop losses of 40 percent to 100 percent after Irma swept through the state a month ago.

Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, said that after Irma hit, the “fruit on the ground was so thick it was hard to walk through” in groves throughout her community.

The forecast, the first for the 2017-2018 growing season, also shows grapefruit production dropping 37 percent, with the harvest filling 4.9 million boxes. The red variety is projected to account for 4 million boxes.

Grapefruit during the past growing season filled 7.8 million boxes, of which 6.3 million boxes were filled by the red variety.

The forecast comes as state officials push Congress to add $2.5 billion for Florida's agriculture industry to a disaster-relief proposal now under consideration.

Gov. Rick Scott and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam met Wednesday with Florida's congressional delegation in Washington, D.C.

A report from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services estimated that losses to the citrus crop and trees from Irma approach $761 million. The state's vegetable, nursery, cattle, dairy, sugar, non-citrus fruit and timber crops all were impacted by the massive storm.

Scott has activated a $25 million emergency-loan program to support citrus growers. Putnam said that could be duplicated or expanded to include other parts of the agriculture industry.

Putnam, a former congressman, said Thursday federal assistance may not be available until early next year if the Florida agricultural funding isn't added to the current relief package.

Putnam questioned the new citrus forecast, saying he thinks the drop in orange production will be greater than 21 percent. Putnam pessimism is based on groves being underwater and fruit rotting and still falling.

“If you were to go into an orange grove in Florida right now, you could stand there and hear fruit hitting the ground,” Putnam said.

Putnam also recalled that an initial forecast in 2004, when the state went through a series of hurricanes, projected numbers that were 16 percent higher than the final yield.

“The crop in 2004 was much larger than it is in 2017,” Putnam said. “If they're off by 16 percent on a crop that is less than half in size what it was in 2004, that's a big, big swing.”

Mark Hudson, U.S. Department of Agriculture state statistician, defended the estimate in a conference call announcing the numbers. He noted the storm came through between a standard fruit-per-tree count and the count of fruit on the ground.

“There is nothing good about a hurricane, but we did have a good demarcation line because we were wrapping up our limb count survey and then we read our drop,” Hudson said.

Putnam, who noted his family's groves in Bartow have experienced a 45 percent to 50 percent loss, said the damage done by Irma and Hurricane Nate in the western Panhandle, will result in years of lower crop yields.

Another concern for the agriculture industry is that while an influx of foreign citrus and commodities could keep prices from rising at the market this season, foreign growers finding buyers in Florida could spell long-term suffering for the state's growers, Putnam added.

Florida Citrus Commission Chairman G. Ellis Hunt, president of citrus groves and packing houses in Lake Wales, told the Senate Agriculture Committee on Thursday that help is needed as the storm's impact will reverberate for years.

“We will not have the production next year that we were going to have this year,” Hunt said.

Also, the storm and forecast numbers are not good for the estimated 45,000 jobs tied to the citrus industry, he said.

“It's going to be greatly reduced,” Hunt said of the expected harvest. “We will not need everybody in our packinghouse that we normally would. So there is definitely job loss.”

The industry had quiet optimism that research into citrus greening was producing positive results and that up to a 10 percent increase could have been experienced this coming season, Hunt noted.

The struggling industry had already seen the 2016-17 season end with the orange crop down 16 percent from the previous season --- which, itself, had been at a five-decades low. Grapefruit production dropped 28 percent from the prior year.

A decade ago, Florida accounted for almost three-fourths of all U.S. orange production. California was second filling 53 million boxes, or 25.7 percent.

Florida now accounts for 58 percent of the U.S. orange production. California remains second with 48 million boxes filled this year, or 40.65 percent of the total.

Despite the storm, Hunt said he and other farmers will plod forward.

“We are just that stubborn, partially because this is what we do,” Hunt said. “I don't have a `Plan B.' Citrus has to work. And this is what we want to do.”