TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s signature citrus industry is facing another production squeeze, while growers might soon be asked to pay more to help market their products.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Friday forecast a 15 percent decline in orange production for the recently started growing season as compared to the last harvest. Grapefruit production is projected to be down 7 percent.
That translates, in part, to a projected 57 million 90-pound boxes of oranges during the new 2020-2021 season, down from 67.3 million boxes in 2019-2020.
If the projection holds, orange production would decline for the second straight year. But state leaders offered encouragement Friday about the industry, which has been hammered in recent years by factors such as a deadly bacterial disease.
“Since late spring, the Florida citrus industry has anticipated the 2020-21 citrus crop to be smaller than the prior season, and today confirms that assumption,” Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said in a prepared statement. “However, Florida citrus production is a marathon, not a sprint, and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services stands committed to help strengthen and promote Florida-grown citrus.”
Shannon Shepp, executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus, said the forecast might reflect “factors beyond grower control.”
“While the first forecast of the season serves as a starting point, we recognize that it does not necessarily indicate where we will end up,” Shepp said in a statement.
The forecast came as the Florida Citrus Commission is expected Oct. 21 to consider increasing a tax growers pay based on their production, as it also finalizes a new budget.
To help fund a marketing plan extolling the benefits of orange juice that could cost up to $10 million, the Citrus Commission has been asked to add a few cents to what is known as the “box tax.”
Growers currently pay 7 cents for each 90-pound box they fill.
The proposed marketing plan is being considered as the Department of Citrus has seen an increase in orange juice consumption since the coronavirus pandemic took hold in March.
Shelley Rossetter, department assistant director of global marketing, said Friday that budget numbers continue to be reviewed.
“With today’s forecast release, our budget requires some adjustment since it was initially based on a higher estimate,” Rossetter said in an email.
The Florida Department of Citrus in June based its box-tax revenue projection for the 2020-2021 growing season at producing 67.65 million boxes of oranges, 4.89 million boxes of grapefruit and 1.02 million boxes of specialty crops.
Along with Friday’s federal forecast projecting orange production at 57 million boxes, it put grapefruit production at 4.5 million boxes and the specialty crops — mostly tangerines and tangelos — at 1.1 million boxes.
As Fried noted, the decline wasn’t completely unexpected.
In June, Citrus Commission member Steve Johnson, owner and general manager of Wauchula-based Johnson Harvesting, Inc., said the state’s orange harvest projection for the 2020-2021 season might be too high.
“Realistically, I think we need to be looking at this around 60 million (boxes),” Johnson said at the time. “We’ve all been out and around. So, that’s going to change those numbers just a little bit. So, I think we’ve got to keep that in mind as we move forward in making this decision.”
Florida growers have struggled for years against residential and commercial development, foreign imports, changing drinking habits and citrus greening, an incurable bacterial disease.
Also, the past two seasons growers have struggled to find places to send their crops. Juice processors did not expect Florida citrus production to rebound quickly from Hurricane Irma in 2017 and signed three- and five-year supply deals with growers from countries including Mexico and Brazil.
About 95 percent of Florida’s orange crop is processed into juice
Meanwhile, a federal report in August found the state’s citrus industry using nearly 50 percent fewer acres than 20 years ago, when the state was producing close to 200 million boxes of oranges and 50 million boxes of grapefruit a year.
Florida growers produced 1.02 million boxes of specialty crops last season — which ended in July — and 4.85 million boxes of grapefruit. The industry uses 90-pound boxes as a common measurement.