Florida’s struggling citrus industry opened the new year without seeing changes in production estimates for this growing season, as state lawmakers begin to decide how much money to pump into agriculture issues.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Friday issued a report that kept estimates for orange, grapefruit and specialty crops the same as in December projections for the 2023-2024 season.
While the industry is expected to top production from the 2022-2023 season, which was hampered by a hurricane and a winter freeze, the new numbers continue to reflect what a top lawmaker and citrus grower described as being “crushed” during the past two decades by the disease citrus greening.
Sen. Ben Albritton, a Wauchula Republican who owns a citrus grove and is slated to become Senate president in November, said investments will continue into research to combat citrus greening, as efforts have expanded into field tests against the disease.
“We’re looking at opportunities to expand the craft program, which is research on a field-scale level so that we can understand, in larger plantings instead of a laboratory, how new varieties and new root stocks are going to perform in the presence of greening,” Albritton said.
“We would like to do them on a larger scale,” Albritton added. “The number of varieties that we have found that have potential to be usable in the presence of greening has grown substantially. So, we need to get those into the field.”
The industry also hopes science that created genetically modified mosquitoes preventing females from surviving into adulthood can be applied to the Asian citrus psyllid, a bug that spreads citrus greening, Albritton said.
The estimates released Friday showed the industry on pace this season to fill 20.5 million 90-pound boxes of oranges, the majority the Valencia variety. That would be up from 15.8 million boxes during the 2022-2023 season, but down from 41.2 million boxes during the 2021-2022 season. Most of Florida’s oranges are processed into juice.
Another 2.4 million boxes are expected to be filled this season with grapefruit, and 550,000 boxes are projected to be filled with specialty fruits. Growers filled 1.81 million boxes of grapefruit during the 2022-2023 season and 3.33 million boxes during the 2021-2022 season.
The citrus-growing season begins as summer turns to autumn and runs into June and July.
Citrus greening, formally known as huanglongbing, has caused massive damage in groves and combined with storms, development pressures and competition from foreign imports to drive down production and damage the industry.
Before the arrival of citrus greening, the industry had reached more than 200 million boxes a season of oranges and 50 million boxes of grapefruit.
Matt Joyner, CEO of Bartow-based Florida Citrus Mutual, said efforts against citrus greening are just beginning to show in the fields.
“This rebound will not happen overnight — it’s going to take time to recover from the effects of citrus greening and recent weather events,” Joyner said in a statement Friday. “Yet, Florida growers have an enduring spirit and remain committed to delivering orange juice to families across the nation and around the world.”
Albritton said he hopes there will be “robust funding for citrus” in a budget that lawmakers will negotiate in the coming weeks for the 2024-2025 fiscal year, which will start July 1.
“The industry deserves it because it’s been crushed by greening,” Albritton said.
Lawmakers included $65 million for various aspects of the citrus industry in the state’s current budget. The total, which included $49.5 million for citrus protection and research on trees resistant to greening, was a $28 million increase from the previous year.
Gov. Ron DeSantis included $20 million for citrus research and the Citrus Health Response Program, which is administered by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, in his $114.4 billion budget proposal for next fiscal year.
DeSantis’ proposal included another $10 million for advertising by the Florida Department of Citrus.