Citrus industry continues to feel squeeze

by | May 13, 2024

Florida’s citrus industry faces ongoing challenges as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest forecast reflects a 5.6 percent drop in production from April’s projections, the closure of the Gulf Citrus Growers Association, and continued recovery struggles from Hurricane Ian.

Bruises continue to be inflicted on Florida’s citrus industry, as the forecast for the nearly concluded growing season dropped further Friday.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued an updated production forecast that was 5.6 percent below projections released in April. Meanwhile, a decades-old citrus association shut its doors this week, and a major grower told investors its groves might need at least one more season to recover from 2022’s Hurricane Ian.

The latest production forecast is 12.2 percent lower than projections when the season began last summer.

In a prepared statement, Matt Joyner, executive vice president and CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual, expressed optimism as “growers continue to see gradual, promising signs of recovery in their groves” from citrus greening — a disease that has plagued the industry the past two decades — and Hurricane Ian.

But the new forecast came after the Gulf Citrus Growers Association told members Monday it was ceasing operations effective next week.

“This action was not taken without due diligence!” association President Wayne Simmons wrote. “Just as the devasting citrus greening bacterial disease has brought unprecedented financial challenges to your operation, and in spite of our staff and leadership’s efforts to keep the association effective and financially viable, the board felt it necessary to take this unfortunate but necessary action.”

The association has represented growers in Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry and Lee counties since 1985.

Simmons added, “Hopefully, in the future, as our industry recovers from the financial challenges inflicted by HLB (an acronym for huanglongbing, the formal name for citrus greening), and/or a cure for the disease is found, the Gulf Citrus Growers Association will stand ready to once again be the voice of the Gulf citrus growers here in Southwest Florida.”

The association is the second to shutter operations this year. In February, the Arcadia-based Peace River Valley Citrus Growers Association Board of Directors agreed to close shop after just over 30 years, pointing in a letter to “the continued decline in citrus production, market fluctuations, and other factors.”

The new forecast projects that growers will produce 17.8 million industry-standard 90-pound boxes of oranges and 1.8 million boxes of grapefruit this season.

That’s 1 million fewer boxes of oranges than projected in the April forecast and 2 million less than in March. Projected Grapefruit production is down 200,000 boxes from the April forecast.

With less than two months left, overall production this season remains slightly ahead of the 2022-2023 harvest, which was the lowest output in 93 years.

Meanwhile, Alico, Inc., a major Fort Myers-based citrus grower, pointed to the continued slow recovery from Hurricane Ian, a Category 4 storm that made landfall in Southwest Florida and plowed through major citrus-growing regions.

“We expect it may take another season, or more, for the groves to fully recover to pre-Hurricane Ian production levels,” Alico said in a quarterly earnings report.

Alico President and CEO John Kiernan expressed disappointment and frustration with production this season.

“Fruit quality was poor at the beginning of both crop harvests but improved, but then the rate of fruit drop accelerated,” Kiernan said in a prepared statement.

Kiernan noted that trees treated in January 2023 with Oxytetracycline, an antibiotic, demonstrated an increase in yield when compared to trees that didn’t receive the potential citrus-greening therapy.

“However, quality improvements and reduced fruit drop were not noticeably observed this season,” Kiernan said. “The financial incentives in place to offset OTC (Oxytetracycline) treatment costs in 2024 has encouraged Alico to double the number of trees it will treat before our next harvest season, and we remain optimistic that production will increase next year.”

And while Alico said it “will continue to conduct our regular citrus operations at nearly all of our groves for years to come,” the company is selling 780 acres of “underperforming” citrus groves for $7 million.

The deal includes an option for an additional 680 acres at the same $9,000 per acre price.

“This new transaction … illustrates our strategy of monetizing underperforming citrus groves on a case by case basis to redeploy capital to generate better returns for our shareholders,” Alico reported.

The sale is expected to close at the end of July, although Alico plans to grow citrus on the additional 680 acres next season, the report said.

Growers this year are on pace to fill 20.1 million boxes with citrus. The overall harvest went from 42.28 million boxes in 2021-2022 to 18.14 million boxes in the 2022-2023 season.

The forecast for specialty crops, primarily tangerines and tangelos, held at 500,000 boxes, up from 480,000 boxes last season. Specialty crops totaled 750,000 boxes in 2021-2022.


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