Florida’s hurricane-battered citrus growers, facing their lowest yield in eight decades, continue to see a drop in production with the season’s harvest nearly complete.
But with federal disaster relief from Hurricane Irma on the horizon, the industry tried to keep a positive spin on the situation after the release Thursday of a new forecast by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“With everything Florida citrus growers have gone through this year, we consider today’s forecast to be relatively stable and not unexpected,” Shannon Shepp, executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus, said in a prepared statement. “This is an industry choosing to remain optimistic about the future. And part of that optimism comes from the support we’ve received from policy makers, industry and consumers.”
The May forecast from the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed a 1 percent decrease from an April outlook in orange and grapefruit output.
That means growers are on pace to fill 44.95 million 90-pound boxes of oranges, which is off 34.7 percent from the prior growing season and would be the lowest production of oranges in Florida since the 1942-1943 season.
Mark Hudson, U.S. Department of Agriculture state statistician, said about 89 percent of the Valencia oranges remain on trees. Non-Valencia oranges have already been picked.
Meanwhile, the amount of harvested grapefruit, which Hudson said is essentially completed for the season, stands at 3.95 million boxes, nearly half the prior season’s yield of 7.76 million boxes.
Grapefruit farming is off 63.5 percent from two seasons ago and stands at a level that hasn’t been seen in nearly a century. Growers in 1918-1919 filled 3.5 million boxes with grapefruit, a year later the number hit 5.9 million boxes.
By the mid-1990s, the state’s citrus growers were filling more than 200 million boxes a year of oranges and 50 million boxes a year of grapefruit.
Specialty fruits, including tangelos and tangerines, stand at 750,000 boxes for the current season.
The totals bring the state’s overall citrus production for the current season to 49.65 million boxes, the lowest cumulative mark since the 1937-38 season, when 40.87 million boxes were filled.
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said in a prepared statement that the “forecast is another reminder of the continued struggles of Florida’s iconic citrus industry since Hurricane Irma inflicted unprecedented damage last year.”
The industry has long battled with deadly citrus-greening disease. But before Irma caused at least $761 million in citrus damages in September, the industry had been looking forward to an uptick in production.
Now, growers are hoping that Florida’s share of a $2.36 billion disaster-relief package that Congress approved for agricultural businesses impacted by hurricanes and wildfires in 2017 will provide a multi-year bridge as replacement trees and groves mature.
In his statement, Putnam said the “much-needed disaster relief package is on the way to help growers get back on their feet.”
Florida is getting $340 million of the relief package 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.
–Jim Turner, News Service of Florida