TALLAHASSEE — Production of Florida oranges is now forecast to be about 17 percent below last season’s output, while the industry has seen a surge in demand linked to people staying home during the COVID-19 pandemic and rediscovering breakfast.
An updated forecast from the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Thursday reduced by about 2 percent the current growing season forecast for production of oranges and grapefruit, which were already projected to be below the yield from the 2019-2020 growing season.
Still, the Bartow-based Florida Department of Citrus considered the revised forecast a sign the industry is “relatively stable.”
“With consumer demand for orange juice up year over year, growers are diligently working to produce every box of citrus they can in an effort to continue to supply Americans with the healthy and delicious beverage they seek,” department Executive Director Shannon Shepp said in a prepared statement.
After the first forecast for the season was released in October, the Florida Citrus Commission voted to increase a tax that growers pay on each box of oranges to help cover a $9.8 million global marketing campaign. That campaign is part of an effort to keep up a surge in juice sales spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The change increased the “box tax” growers pay from 7 cents for each 90-pound box of oranges they fill to 12 cents per box. Grapefruit and specialty fruits remained at 7 cents a box.
The work-from-home trend, along with a belief from many people that a compound found in oranges called hesperidin provides a layer of protection from respiratory illnesses, has driven orange juice to supermarket sales unseen in years.
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, focused Thursday on the health aspects of citrus.
“With citrus as a powerful source of Vitamin C, antioxidants, and fiber, Florida’s citrus growers are working hard to fulfill market demand for oranges, grapefruit, and specialty citrus,” Fried said in a statement. “With these projections in line with an expected smaller 2020-21 citrus crop, we at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services stand ready to support our proud citrus growers with research, innovation, and partnership.”
About 95 percent of Florida’s orange crop, still the largest in the nation, is processed into juice.
If projections hold, orange production would decline for a second straight year in an industry that has struggled against residential and commercial development, foreign imports and citrus greening, an incurable bacterial disease.
The updated federal forecast has growers in Florida producing enough oranges to fill 56 million 90-pound boxes, down from 57 million boxes projected in the October forecast, which opened the growing season. The season continues into July.
Just over two decades ago, Florida growers grew enough oranges for more than 200 million boxes a season. The industry uses 90-pound boxes as a standard measurement.
For the 2019-2020 season, growers produced enough citrus to fill 67.3 million boxes of oranges, 4.85 million boxes of grapefruit, and 1.02 million boxes with specialty crops.
The updated forecast also projects growers to fill 4.4 million boxes of grapefruit and 1.1 million boxes of specialty crops — mostly tangerines and tangelos. The October forecast had grapefruit at 4.5 million boxes. The specialty crop outlook remained unchanged.