Citrus numbers improve as struggles continue

Florida’s citrus industry ended its growing season on a slight uptick, regaining the Sunshine State’s dominance in orange production over California.

But struggles remain.

Growers, who last year posted 75-year lows because of damage caused by Hurricane Irma, still are at diminished production levels that hadn’t been seen in decades as they face deadly citrus-greening disease and factors such as the expansion of development into rural areas and changes in national drinking habits.

The final count for the 2018-2019 growing season was 71.6 million 90-pound boxes of oranges, 4.51 million boxes of grapefruit and 990,000 boxes of specialty fruit, which are mostly tangerines and tangelos, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said Thursday. The industry’s standard measurement is 90-pound boxes.

A June forecast had estimated 71.4 million boxes of oranges for the season.

Overall, the new numbers reflect a nearly 59 percent increase in oranges from the 2017-2018 season, when the total was 45.05 million boxes, and a 4 percent increase in oranges from the 2016-2017 season. The production in 2016-2017 sunk to a level last seen during World War II.

Grapefruit is down nearly 42 percent from two years ago, while specialty crops are off almost 39 percent in the same time.

Before Irma, the state’s grapefruit production hadn’t been below 5 million boxes since the 1918-1919 season.

Still, the numbers announced Thursday were greeted somewhat positively by the Florida Department of Citrus.

“Today’s forecast is a great improvement over where we were this time last year post-Hurricane Irma and reflects a positive trend in production over the last two seasons,” Assistant Director of Global Marketing Shelley Rossetter said in an email. “Growers continue to recover and replant, ensuring Florida citrus remains our state’s signature agricultural crop for years to come.”

The numbers show Florida accounting for 57.7 percent of the nation’s orange production. California had the next-highest production at 50 million boxes.

During the 2017-2018 season, California narrowly surpassed Florida in orange production --- 45.4 million boxes to 45.05 million boxes --- because of Irma’s devastation.

From the early 1970s to the end of the century, Florida regularly produced more than 200 million boxes of citrus. Orange production reached 244 million boxes during the 1997-1998 season.

The latest numbers came as Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried has ramped up efforts to get farmers to consider replacing some acres of fruit with hemp, which she has predicted could become a $20 billion to $30 billion a year industry.

“It’s going to be something that is going to replace all of our Styrofoam, our plastics, our paper,” Fried said while appearing before the Capital Tiger Bay Club in Tallahassee last month. “Hemp is going to be what I call an industrial revolution in our state and across the country, and it’s all biodegradable.”

Citrus is a $7 billion to $8 billion a year industry.

This week, Fried’s office touted a Washington Post story Monday in which the commissioner encouraged citrus farmers to consider hemp as a supplemental alternative crop.