Florida citrus growers squeezed by rising production costs, lower farm prices
LAKELAND — Florida citrus growers are caught in a vice between low farm prices and high production costs, contributing to the downward spiral in the state’s annual harvest of oranges and grapefruit.
Growers worried last season that historically low farm prices on the cash market would force many growers to cut back on caretaking costs, resulting in fewer fruit to harvest.
That worry may play out this season as the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Friday forecast a 15% decline in the 2020-21 orange harvest and a 7% decline in grapefruit.
“I’m hoping what we’re not seeing is a trend of lower fruit prices and growers putting less money in their groves,” said Ned Hancock, an Avon Park grower and chairman of the Florida Citrus Commission. “I think to a small degree, that’s what happened this year.”
Marty McKenna, a Lake Wales grower and citrus commissioner, agreed.
“I think that the impact of less than break-even prices (in previous seasons) is negatively affecting the number of boxes we can grow,” said McKenna, referring to Friday’s USDA estimate.
The USDA’s initial estimate for this season reported Florida growers will produce just 57 million boxes of oranges, the lowest orange crop since 52.1 million boxes in the 1946-47 season. That split between 23 million boxes of early and mid-season oranges, harvested from October to March, and 34 million boxes of Valencia oranges harvested from March to June.
The USDA projected the 2020-21 grapefruit crop at 4.5 million boxes, the lowest crop since the 2019-20 season, the earliest reported statistics from the USDA.
The annual Florida citrus crop has been declining since the arrival of the fatal bacterial disease citrus greening in 2005. Infected trees have lower fruit production and smaller fruit sizes, both of which contribute to declining box totals.
If this season’s USDA forecast proves accurate by the end of the harvest season in June, the Florida orange crop will have declined 76% since the state’s growers produced 242 million boxes in the 2003-04 season.
Meanwhile, grove caretaking costs needed to fight greening have more than tripled in the past 15 years.
Florida citrus growers paid an average $1,847 per acre for grove caretaking in the 2019-20 season, according to a June report from Ariel Singerman, an economist at the Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred. At that price, growers need $2.01 per pound solids for early-mid oranges and $2.31 overall just to break even.
Before the USDA forecast, the state’s juice processors, who buy 95% of the annual orange crop, were offering about $2 per pound solids for early-mid oranges, according to Hancock and McKenna.
Juice processors pay growers based on pound solids, the quantity of juice with a specific sugar content squeezed from the fruit. A gallon of orange juice has about one pound solid.
A $2 farm price is a significant improvement from 2019-20 prices, but it’s still not a profitable price that will keep growers in business for future seasons, Hancock and McKenna said. In particular, it won’t reverse the downward spiral of cutting back on grove caretaking, resulting in lower fruit production.
“My biggest fear is if the (farm) price can’t respond to where our costs have been for the last couple years, this trend will continue,” Hancock said. “Everybody’s adjusting their caretaking based on low fruit prices, and that can’t continue to happen. Everybody needs to make money.”
Citrus growers need higher farm prices after an unprofitable 2019-20 season for the industry.
Last season’s total citrus crop value plunged 19% to $726.7 million from $902.4 million in 2018-19, the USDA reported. That’s based on the sales of all Florida citrus crops — oranges, grapefruit, tangerines and tangelos.
Cutting back on grove caretaking has been amplified by the ongoing impact on tree health following Hurricane Irma, Hancock and McKenna agreed.
The 2017 hurricane toppled tens of thousands of trees, blew fruit off standing trees, and flooded groves. The storm hit before the USDA had completed its crop survey, but Florida citrus officials estimated Irma resulted in a 50% decline in the 2017-18 citrus crop.
A healthy citrus tree takes several seasons to recover fully from a hurricane, as Florida growers learned following a hurricane barrage in 2004 and 2005, McKenna said, and greening-infected trees take longer to recover.
“Water damage (from flooding) is hard to overcome,” he said. “Greening makes everything worse.”
McKenna noted Friday’s USDA report showed the biggest orange harvest declines in the southern production region of Florida’s citrus belt, where Irma had its greatest impact, including flooded groves, toppled trees and limb damage. The region includes Charlotte, Glades, Okeechobee and Martin counties and all others to the south.
The USDA projected 2020-21 orange production in the southern region at 15.3 million boxes, down 20% from last season.
Despite this season’s historically low crop, McKenna and Hancock expressed reluctance that it will force Florida juice processors to offer higher 2020-21 farm prices.
“I would hope it puts upward pressure on prices, but I don’t know,” Hancock said. “We’ll see.”
Kevin Bouffard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 863-802-7591.