© 2024 WLRN
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Citrus growers wait for aid as the season closes

A man looks at citrus trees.
Chris O'Meara
Fifth generation farmer Roy Petteway looks at the damage to his citrus grove from the effects of Hurricane Ian on Oct. 12, 2022, in Zolfo Springs, Fla.

Florida citrus officials are promoting the “grit of this industry” as the growing season is set to close with the lowest production in nearly a century.

But they say growers are getting more anxious while continuing to wait for federal assistance approved after Hurricane Ian and Hurricane Nicole uprooted trees and flooded fields last fall.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture released a report that estimated Florida will produce 15.75 million boxes of oranges this season. That would be down from 41.2 million boxes during the 2021-2022 season — a total that itself was the lowest production in decades. The department will release a final report for the 2022-2023 season in July.

Hurricane Ian caused heavy damage to the industry after it made landfall in September in Southwest Florida and crossed the state, including barreling through major citrus-growing areas. But even before the hurricanes, the 2022-2023 harvest was expected to be smaller than in previous years, as an initial “fruit per tree” count was down.

“It was a short crop to begin with, even before the hurricanes hit,” U.S. Department of Agriculture State Statistician Mark Hudson said. “The hurricanes made it even shorter.”

The estimates released Friday showed Florida producing 1.82 million boxes of grapefruit this season, down from 3.33 million in 2021-2022. They also showed the state producing 490,00 boxes of specialty crops, mostly tangerines and tangelos, down from 750,000 in 2021-2022. The industry uses a standard of 90-pound boxes.

The overall total of slightly more than 18 million boxes would represent the lowest production for Florida growers since 17 million boxes were filled in the 1927-1928 season.

Matt Joyner, CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual, said that while growers are resilient, “we must have the hurricane relief promised by our federal government in order to overcome the damages and losses inflicted by Hurricanes Ian and Nicole."

Congress passed a $1.7 trillion omnibus spending bill in December that included $3.742 billion for crop and livestock losses across the nation in 2022.

Several Florida lawmakers have championed a block-grant process to help distribute money, but it awaits congressional approval. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has estimated Hurricane Ian inflicted up to $675 million in damage to the state’s citrus growers.

Meanwhile, the industry faces development pressures and has grappled for two decades with deadly citrus greening disease, more formally known as huanglongbing.

"We remain optimistic about the future, with new treatment methods making a real difference in our fight against greening,” Joyner said. “With hurricane relief, the dedication of our growers and the grit of this industry, I’m confident Florida citrus will come back.”

State lawmakers last month passed a budget for the 2023-2024 fiscal year that would increase funding for various aspects of the citrus industry from the current $37 million to $65 million. Gov. Ron DeSantis has not signed the budget or issued vetoes. The fiscal year will start July 1.

The proposed state spending includes $49.5 million for citrus protection and research, including large-scale field trials on trees that are resistant to huanglongbing.

Friday’s estimate for orange production would be the lowest since the 1932-1933 growing season. At that time, the state was still reeling from hurricanes that crossed Florida after hitting Miami in 1926 and West Palm Beach in 1928. Also, a Mediterranean fruit-fly invasion in 1929 affected the industry.

Meanwhile, this year’s grapefruit crop is set to be the lowest since 1911-1912. The estimate for specialty crops is slightly above the levels in 1920-1921.

Friday’s estimates represented a relatively small improvement for oranges and grapefruit compared to a May forecast. The estimate for oranges increased by 100,000 boxes, while the estimate for grapefruit increased by 20,000 boxes. The estimate for specialty crops, however, decreased by 10,000 boxes.

Copyright 2023 WUSF 89.7. To see more, visit WUSF 89.7.

Jim Turner - News Service of Florida
More On This Topic