After Disappointing Season, Growers Hope Research Will Slow the Slide
by PAUL CATALA
photo by MICHAEL WILSON
For growers all too familiar with struggle, the final numbers for the 2021-2022 citrus season were not surprising.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s June report for the October to June 2021-22 season estimated a season total of 44.75 million boxes of oranges, grapefruit, and specialty citrus, down more than 22 percent from the previous year.
Oranges account for most of that estimate, with 40.7 million boxes, while grapefruit was estimated at 3.3 million boxes and tangerines/tangelos were estimated at 750,000.
While 2021-2022 was a disappointing season that echoed the familiar decline in citrus production, it didn’t mark the end of an era for most growers and industry experts.
Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried cited the meager bump in production estimates from April to June as a sign of hope.
“Our producers have faced challenges over the past decade, including the continued impact of citrus greening and severe weather events. However, Florida orange juice and our fresh citrus continue to be in demand by consumers.”
Many citrus growers such as Vic Story, president of The Story Companies in Lake Wales, remain guarded on the season outcome and what it could indicate for the future.
Story says the 2022 citrus season was more or less hit-and-miss, but mostly “miss.”
“Some of our groves did pretty well this season,” he says, “but the ones we picked at the end did not. We had a heavy fruit drop. We picked the least we picked in some time. It was a very poor season, no question about that, due primarily to the fruit drop.”
Established in 1945, The Story Companies holds about 1,800 acres of citrus, leases about 400 acres and caretakes about 2,000 acres across Central Florida.
The Story Companies harvested about 400 boxes an acre of Valencia oranges, but other varieties averaged about 100 boxes. He says the average is 225 per acre, with the high at about 425 boxes per acre.
Other factors for The Story Companies’ less-than-stellar season were greening and a significant freeze in January. He says the citrus greening put trees under stress, causing them to drop fruit; some blocks were filled with dead wood.
“For us, there were some blocks that were in bloom at that time and even though we ran our microjets, it still was very damaging,” says Story, who adds that impact will carry forward to the next crop for growers. “There are some blocks with dead wood. And for greening trees under stress – it causes them to drop fruit.”
Story says he’s used gibberellic acid to help rejuvenate trees to hold fruit better, although it causes the outside of the orange to stay green while the inside develops.
Overall, Story says growers have been able to maneuver to keep up production, although he sees a further decline in numbers of growers statewide.
“It’s a lot more work than it used to be. I haven’t given up yet, and we’re making it work so far. We’re doing a lot of things at different times of the year to help the trees stay healthy and for us, a lot of that’s working,” he adds. “There are other growers committed and hoping things get better. The trick to that is to stay in business long enough … to get in viable production.”
To help that cause, Fried secured $18.5 million in the 2021-22 state budget to support Florida citrus production, health, and research.
Those initiatives will hopefully keep the citrus industry stable next season, although at Hunt Brothers Inc. citrus growers, like Story, 2022 numbers were down. Daniel Hunt, Hunt Bros. cooperative president, says his company’s season was similar to that of other growers.
“Boxes per acre, pound solids per box and brix are well below where they need to be,” he says. “However, we are optimistic that these issues will be resolved as young trees mature and tools improve.”
Christina Morton, director of communications for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, says despite what she calls “compounding factors” impacting this season’s yield, growers are optimistic due to support from consumers and lawmakers.
Morton says folks are seeing renewed appreciation for the benefits of Florida-grown orange juice. On the legislative front, there were positive efforts during the 2022 Florida Legislative Session to support the citrus industry.
“All this to say that many hands are working to support and sustain this important economic driver for our state, and this season was certainly a great reminder of that commitment,” she says.
Despite the downward trend, it’s not all gloom and doom, says Ray Royce, executive director of the Highlands County Citrus Growers Association. The association’s executive director since October 2001 and a citrus grower from 1981 to 2001, he says that even though most growers are disappointed with the most recent season, he sees an upward swing ahead.
“Obviously, the growers are disappointed that we continue to see overall reductions in production, but hopefully we’ve seen the bottom of the curve and we will start to see some modest increases in production next season,” he forecasts.
Like Story, Royce says greening and cold weather dealt the most critical blow to growers this year.
“There have been little bits of things here and there that further added to the overall problems associated with greening,” he says.
On a positive note, Royce says he doesn’t see competition from international markets causing much disruption in domestic citrus production, although some citrus brands are sourcing juice from outside the U.S., primarily Brazil and Mexico.
“It’s not a significant problem,” he says. “We just need to be able to put a good crop on the tree and have that crop last through harvest; that’s our most significant problem right now.”
Like other growers, Royce acknowledges the conversion of groves to development as trees become less profitable and/or die because of greening.
“The primary challenge facing the industry is how do we grow a good tree in the presence of a disease?” he says. “How do we put a good crop on that tree? And how do we get the tree to carry that crop to harvest?”
Royce is hopeful that next season, improved tools and production practices will allow more fruit to stay on the trees as more young trees are planted. Due to so many limitations, he says he doesn’t ever see the Florida citrus industry returning to the prime position it once held.
“What we want to see in the industry is to see it start to grow incrementally every year moving forward,” he says.