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Florida's citrus industry continues to struggle plagued by disease and weather

The USDA forecasts that Florida will produce about 20.5 million boxes of oranges in the 2023-2024 season.
The USDA forecasts that Florida will produce about 20.5 million boxes of oranges in the 2023-2024 season.

Citrus farmers in Florida have been plagued by problems for decades now.

The new state Senate President, Ben Albritton, said he wants to boost Florida’s agriculture industries.

He told the News Service of Florida that he’s looking to increase research on new varieties of citrus that can better withstand the deadly diseases that have plagued the state’s hallmark crops, and led to record lows in production during the last decade.

Ed White is the president of White’s Red Hill Groves, a citrus farm in Sanford.

He said it’s expensive to keep citrus trees alive these days.

"When I was growing up. Everything all totaled about $600 or $700 an acre per year. Now that same production is anywhere from $2,000 and up just to keep a one acre of citrus trees alive."

Hear more about Red Hill Groves:

Red Hill Groves
WMFE's Talia Blake speaks with Ed White, president of Red Hills Grove.

Christa Court is the director of the UF/IFAS Economic Impact Analysis Program.
Christa Court is the director of the UF/IFAS Economic Impact Analysis Program.

WMFE's Talia Blake talked with Christa Court , director of the UF/IFAS Economic Impact Analysis Program, about the citrus industry.

Listen to the full conversation in the player above:

Talia Blake: How does the citrus industry impact the economy in Florida?

Christa Court: Sure, Talia and thanks for having me. Florida citrus industry contributes just under $7 billion in industry output to Florida's economy. That includes multiplier effects of the industries involved in fruit production, fresh fruit packing, as well as orange juice, grapefruit juice and other citrus juice production.

Talia Blake: Do you know how that compares to the rest of the country?

Christa Court: We're the top of citrus producing state in the country closely followed by California. California produces mostly for fresh fruit production, and we happen to produce mostly for a juice processing.

Talia Blake: You mentioned that one of the things that it impacts is jobs. How does the citrus industry impact jobs and labor here?

Christa Court: There's about 32,542 jobs that are supported either directly or indirectly by Florida citrus industry. When I say indirectly, those are the jobs that are supported throughout the supply chain. So when those industries involved directly in citrus production are purchasing goods and services from within the state of Florida, as well as when the employees have those directly or indirectly. Supported industries are spending their money on things like a groceries, their health care, their entertainment, going out to restaurants, all of those types of things.

Talia Blake: So the USDA's latest forecast from earlier in October shows that Florida will produce about 20.5 million boxes of oranges in the 2023-2024 season. Is that number an increase or a decrease over the past few years?

Christa Court: It's a decrease, but for several different reasons. In the past few years, not only are they battling citrus greening, but they've also been battling impacts of hurricanes. The citrus industry was hit by Hurricane Ian back in 2022. We are still seeing some recovery in yield from that. So they can have a longer recovery period than some other crops that maybe have multiple growing seasons within a particular year. It might take a citrus grove two or three years to come back from the impacts of a major hurricane.

Talia Blake: You mentioned citrus greening, which is the tree killing bacterial disease carried by a small flying insect. Can you elaborate on how that is impacting production here in Florida?

Christa Court: The biggest impact that the citrus greening is having is to the yield of the trees. So each tree is producing less fruit or potentially smaller fruit. In some cases, that's led to increases in production costs that may have led growers to go out of citrus production. There are others that are having success in at least managing the disease for now or until some of the research that you mentioned at the beginning is able to have a better success rate against the disease.

Talia Blake: Speaking of the citrus greening disease and how hurricanes are impacting citrus farmers here, I'm seeing some reports of some citrus farm owners not being able to hold on to their land. I'm wondering if you know what's happening with the citrus farms that are being sold off here?

Christa Court: I'm not sure exactly what's happening with them once they are sold off, but I do have a colleague, Dr. Ariel Singerman, who looks extensively at what's happening with citrus acreage around the state. He points to several reasons that the acreage is declining. It's not only battling that citrus greening disease, but there was a significant citrus canker disease as well. Back in the 1990s, there was an eradication program that made acreage go down. There's hurricanes, as we've mentioned, there's increases in real estate development in a lot of these areas that are traditional citrus production areas. There are also things like changes in consumer preferences for orange juice that might be impacting the industry as well.

Talia Blake: What do you mean when you say changes to consumers with orange juice? Are you saying that less people are drinking orange juice these days?

Christa Court: It's not as simple as that. So it could be that less people are drinking it, people are drinking it at different times of the day or back a long time ago, it might have been more common that families sat down for breakfast and all had a glass of orange juice while they did so. And it's just not something that happens in the households today. There's a lot of different things.

Talia Blake: When was the height of the citrus industry here in Florida?

Christa Court: I can tell you that back in the early 2000s, around 2003/2004 is when Dr. Singerman's most recent study goes back to and there were about 679,000 acres in the state at the time in commercial citrus production. Now that has declined to the latest estimate is the 2021/2022 season, it's declined down to about 340,000 acres. So it's a roughly 50% decline over that period from 2003/2004 to 2021/2022.

Talia Blake: What are some ways that the citrus industry impacts the economy or everyday people in Florida that people may not think about?

Christa Court: I think people don't think about the the size of the industry. We do a lot of work. We have an infographic display that goes out with our reports each year where we try to bring it home just how much citrus is produced here in Florida. The latest version of that we put out was for the 2020-2021 season. One of the comparisons that we made for just the fruit production side of things was that the total citrus production would fill up the largest cargo aircraft more than 4000 times. That's production for one particular season. So there are a lot of citrus fruit being produced in Florida. It's for consumption, not only here in the state and around the country, but around the world.


Talia Blake: Following up on that, do you know how much citrus stays in this state versus how much gets shipped out to the rest of the country?

Christa Court: A lot of the fruit production stays in the state I have the number for where the citrus juice goes since that's what most of the production is going into here. So it's over roughly 90% of the total volume of citrus fruit production goes into that juice processing sector. Then about 91% of the value of citrus juice sales is shipped out of the state of Florida. Again, that's to states throughout the U.S. but then also around the world. I remember I was in ? teaching a course in Iceland, and I saw an orange juice brand that was named Flora Donna. I'm not sure that it came from Florida, but it was definitely signaling that connection between Florida and Florida citrus. A majority of this overall citrus industry is located within Central and South Florida.

Talia Blake: What county specifically is most of the production located?

Christa Court: There are significant variation in terms of the number of jobs that are located within particular counties. But to me, the more important thing is the relative percentage of a county's economy that's supported by the citrus industry. So in terms of that relative value, it's Hardy County, DeSoto County, and Hendry County that pop up as having a larger share of their employment or a larger share of the county's value added which is akin to like a gross state product or it could be gross county product in this case. So in those cases, it's more than 5% of the county's economy is supported by this one iconic industry.

After a brief stint as Morning Edition Producer at The Public’s Radio in in Rhode Island, Talia Blake returned to WMFE, the station that grew her love for public radio. She graduated with a double-major in Broadcast Journalism and Psychology from the University of Central Florida (Go Knights!). While at UCF, she was an intern for WMFE’s public affairs show, Intersection. In her spare time, Talia is an avid foodie and enjoys working out.
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