USDA report: Florida citrus continues to decline

Kevin Bouffard
The Ledger
The Florida citrus industry saw acreage decline 3% in 2019-20, continuing a 22-year decline. The crop value plummeted 19% to $726.7 million. FILE PHOTO/THE LEDGER 2018

LAKELAND — After 22 years of decline, Florida’s commercial citrus acreage shows few signs of hitting bottom.

The state’s citrus acreage declined another 3% to 419,452 acres, or 11,149 fewer acres than a year ago, according to the recently released annual survey from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Growers planted 7,885 acres of new citrus groves over the year, but that did not keep pace with 19,034 acres lost since 2019.

Commercial citrus acreage is the lowest in Florida since 1966, when the USDA adopted its current survey method, the report said.

In another report recapping the 2019-20 season, production of oranges, grapefruit, tangerines and tangelos fell 5% to 73.17 million boxes from 77.35 million boxes the previous season. The total crop value plunged 19% to $726.7 million from $902.4 million in 2018-19.

“The USDA reports certainly reflect the devastation greening has had on the industry,” said Mike Sparks, chief executive of Florida Citrus Mutual in Bartow, the growers’ trade group. “As we get into the new year, there is some reason for optimism. A year ago, growers were asking, ‘Why are we still in this?’ That question is off the table now.”


Greening is a fatal bacterial disease that appeared in Florida in the fall of 2005. Florida citrus officials attribute the state’s citrus declines since then primarily to the disease.

Sparks and Tom Spreen, a retired University of Florida agricultural economist and authority on the citrus industry, reported that farm prices have risen substantially from the historic lows in 2019-20 while the market for Florida orange juice, the state’s biggest citrus commodity, has also improved dramatically because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Oranges lead acreage decline

According to the census report, oranges accounted for almost all the total at 382,393 acres, a 2.6% decline over the year and down 42% since 1998, the last survey to show acreage increases. About 95% of Florida’s annual orange crop goes to juice.

Florida had 22,453 acres of grapefruit groves, off 11.4% from last year and a six-fold decline from 132,817 grapefruit acres in 1998. Tangerine and tangelo acreage increased 13% over the year to 14,606 acres, but that’s still a nearly four-fold decline from 54,053 acres in 1998.

The number of citrus trees declined at a smaller rate, down 1.3% to almost 60.6 million trees from nearly 61.4 million trees in 2019.

The smaller tree declines reflect the denser plantings for new groves. In the recent past, growers planted 120 to 140 trees per acre, but most new groves have more than 200 trees per acre.

“Overall the tree count and acreage numbers paint a pessimistic picture of the Florida citrus industry,” said Kristen Carlson, executive director of the Citrus Research and Field Trial Foundation Inc., or CRAFT, a program under the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to incentivize planting new citrus groves.

Carlson also expressed some optimism for the future of Florida citrus.

“Even though the tree census statistics look bad for the industry, there are factors in play that promise Florida growers can be profitable, albeit in a smaller industry,” she said.

The CRAFT program is one such hopeful sprout, Carlson said. In its first year, it spent $2.3 million to subsidize planting 1,923 new citrus acres, or about a quarter of the new plantings reported by the USDA.

The program pays growers $3,400 per acre to plant a new grove, about half the planting and caretaking costs for the first two years, she said. In return, growers agree to participate in various field trials testing new caretaking methods and citrus tree varieties.

But Carlson acknowledged the CRAFT program alone won’t revive Florida citrus. The industry needs private investments from growers and juice processors to reverse the declining tree and acreage trends, she said.

Polk remains in No. 2 spot

For the second consecutive year, Polk County fell from its traditional place as the largest citrus-producing county in Florida, according to the USDA census.

Polk has 64,379 acres of citrus groves behind DeSoto County with 67,044 acres, the report said. They’re followed by Hendry County with 59,227 acres, Highlands County with 57,351 acres and Hardee County with 43,492.

Polk ranked third in the number of citrus trees, which reflects the fact the area has a larger number of older, less densely planted groves. DeSoto led the state with 9.5 million trees followed by Hendry with 9.3 million trees, Polk with 8.9 million trees, Highlands with 8.5 million trees and Hardee with 6 million trees.

The decline in Florida’s total citrus crop value reflects both historically low farm prices on the cash market and the decline in production, Spreen and Sparks agreed.

Florida growers harvested 67.3 million boxes of oranges in the 2019-20 season, a 6.3% decline from the previous season. The state’s citrus harvest runs from October to June.

The grapefruit harvest finished at 4.85 million boxes, a 7.5% increase from 2018-19. Despite the increase, the value of the 2019-20 grapefruit crop dropped 25.5% to $48.9 million from $65.7 million in the previous season.

The harvest of tangerines and tangelos came in at 1.02 million boxes, a 3% increase from 990 million boxes in the previous season. Crop value rose 22% to $20.6 million from $16.9 million over the year.

More than 60% of Florida grapefruit goes to juice, and more than 70% of tangerines and tangelos are sold on the fresh market.

'Reason to have cautious optimism'

Farm prices for Florida oranges collapsed during the 2019-20 season as pre-pandemic OJ sales continued to decline while the state’s processors had increased orange juice imports under fears of fruit shortages following Hurricane Irma in September 2017. Florida juice processors had amassed record-high OJ inventories, which also reduced their demand for 2019-20 oranges.

The average farm price on the cash market last season finished at 95 cents per pound solids, a standard industry measure of the amount of juice squeezed from fruit, for early and mid-season orange varieties, according to a Florida Department of Citrus report. That represented a 56% decline from the average $2.20 paid in 2018-19.

Late-season Valencia oranges declined to an average $1.25, a 47.5% decline from the average $2.38 paid the previous season.

Depending upon caretaking practices, such as the amount and frequency of pesticide and fertilizer use, Florida growers need a price of $1.80 to $2.00 per pound solids to break even.

Most growers sell their oranges to processors under a multi-year contract, which usually includes a floor price. But the cash market affects floor prices and other economic terms in contracts.

“If you had a contract, you may not have gotten as much as you like, but you weren’t hurt that bad,” Spreen said. “If you sold on the cash market, you got hit pretty hard.”


The farm price outlook appears much better heading into the beginning of the harvest season next month, Sparks and Spreen agreed.

An increase in retail sales earlier this year, fueled by health concerns related to COVID-19, has reduced OJ inventories held by Florida juice processors, they said.

For the 2019-20 season through Aug. 1, retail OJ sales in the U.S. market have increased 12.2%, according to the Florida Department of Citrus.

Some of that increase can be attributed to a collapse of foodservice sales to restaurants, hotels and other institutional buyers, Sparks and Spreen agreed, but the retail sales surge has more than made up for foodservice declines.

“We’ve been able in one year to draw down on OJ inventories despite the decline in foodservice sales,” Sparks said. “At the end of the season, retail sales have made up for that loss plus an additional 10% in OJ consumption.”

Florida processors have responded in pre-season negotiations for the 2020-21 orange crop.

Sparks said Citrus Mutual members are reporting getting cash offers of $1.75 to $1.85 for early-mid oranges and $1.80 to $2 for Valencia oranges.

Spreen said he has heard about offers up to $2 for early-mids and $2.20 for Valencias.

“If you peel back the orange, there’s reason to have cautious optimism” despite the USDA reports, Sparks said.

Kevin Bouffard can be reached at or at 863-802-7591.

Did You Know?

The Florida citrus industry saw acreage decline 3% in 2019-20, continuing a 22-year decline. The crop value plummeted 19% to $726.7 million.