Citrus agency counts on bigger crop next year

Citrus fruits
Citrus fruits (iStock/Vasko)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Florida Department of Citrus is banking on storm-battered and disease-hardened growers being able to pick more fruit from their trees next growing season.

As it starts to patch together a budget for the upcoming fiscal year, the department is projecting that revenues will increase by just over $400,000 through upticks in orange, grapefruit and specialty-fruit production, according to numbers released by the agency.

However, a continued decline in the forecast for the ongoing growing season forced the Bartow-based department on Wednesday to once again squeeze its current operating budget.

This time the Citrus Commission, which oversees the department, had to cut $137,866 from the just-over $17 million operating budget.

Department officials said they were able to make the cuts by shifting $122,352 from reserves, with the remainder from general revenue service-charge changes and medical research.

The Department of Citrus is funded through a “box” tax on citrus. Revenues have dropped as citrus production has declined in recent years because of citrus-greening disease and destruction from September’s Hurricane Irma.

In January, the commission shifted more than $70,000 out of administration, scientific-research and global-marketing budgets to cover an anticipated drop in revenue. A month earlier, the hole created by declining crops required the commission to shift $556,147 from reserves to the operating budget.

Irma, which made landfall in the Keys and Collier County before barreling up the state, caused major damage to the citrus industry in regions such as Southwest Florida. A federal relief package will provide $340 million to the state in the form of a block grant to help citrus farmers rebuild. Farmers are expected to be able to start applying for money through the “2017 Wildfires and Hurricanes Indemnity Program” by July 16.

A preliminary budget for the department’s next fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1, will be based on projections that growers will be able to fill 60 million 90-pound boxes of oranges, 5 million similar-sized boxes of grapefruit and 880,000 boxes of specialty fruits, which include tangerines and tangelos. The preliminary budget will be formally introduced at a June 20 meeting.

The numbers would remain historic lows for the state’s signature industry, but if reached would represent a 34.8 percent increase in oranges from the current season, a 26.6 percent increase in grapefruit and 17.3 percent increase in specialty fruits.

The industry is currently on pace to record its lowest yield since the 1937-1938 season, when an overall total of 40.87 million boxes were filled.

Filling a projected 65.88 million boxes in the next season would put the state on par with the with the 1942-1943 season, when growers filled 36.5 million boxes of oranges, 27.3 million boxes of grapefruit, and 4.9 million boxes of specialty fruits.

The commission receives revenue by charging 7 cents on each 90-pound box of processed oranges, grapefruit and specialty fruits.

No discussion was made of the box taxes on Wednesday, with officials noting the rates will be addressed in October, after the first forecast of next season by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.