Florida citrus growers grapple with grim reality: Harvest drops to levels not seen since 1936

Our Florida oranges, the celebrated official state fruit that we see nearly every day, are in the middle of a citrus crisis, with crop production plummeting to some of the lowest levels in almost 90 years.

This fruit calamity, a product of a disease called citrus greening, created a nearly 20-year battle that continues to destroy citrus acreage, farmers’ livelihood and scientists’ efforts — and orange juice prices at the supermarket are becoming more expensive, too.

This year, Florida’s final orange production forecast, which is measured by how many 90-pound boxes are filled, fell to 15.9 million boxes, according to figures released by the United States Department of Agriculture on Wednesday. It’s the lowest since 1936 when production also hovered around 15.9 million (when irrigation barely existed).

This year, production fell due to a lethal combination of citrus greening, as well as the lingering impact from Hurricanes Ian and Nicole last year.

“It just continues to be shocking to people who have been in the industry for the last three decades that we’ve gone from where we were to where we are,” said Brantley Schirard Jr., a third-generation citrus grower in Fort Pierce.

Citrus acreage is less than half of what it was in 1996 when it stood at more than 800,000 acres. And acreage continues to shrink: In 2021, there were 16,289 acres of citrus sold, with more than 17,000 acres sold in 2022.

But, isn’t that just because many people are moving to Florida and agricultural land is continually converted into development? After all, more than 1,000 people on average moved to the state every day last year, according to the 2022 Lay of the Land market report. Citrus growers, researchers and industry experts will all tell you the interests of developers and mass migration of people to Florida are not primarily to blame for the significant loss of the state’s trademark fruit.

The problem lies in a little bug.

A brutal blend

The citrus-crazed critter is about the size of a single grain of rice. The Asian citrus psyllid causes a disease called citrus greening, a sickness that essentially starves citrus trees and creates symptoms such as premature fruit drop and small, bitter tasting fruit unfit for use, whether as produce or in juice. Citrus greening has been around in the world for centuries, but it was first detected in Florida in 2005 in Miami.

And last year, Hurricane Ian’s unexpected devastation in southwest Florida further exacerbated the already-struggling crops, further reducing the production forecast.

The USDA releases a monthly forecast from September to July each season. These predictions operate similar to a weather forecast, said Mark Hudson, Florida’s state statistician for the USDA.

“We have field staff that actually go out and get our tree inventory, set our numbers, and then they go out and count and measure the fruit,” he said. “They measure the size of the fruit, they measure how much drop, and then they measure the fruit, how many pieces of fruit are on the tree. It’s an objective measurement survey.”

The average fruit per tree is 25% of what it was in the prior 10 seasons, he said.

Overall, those forecasts have generally been decreasing each year since the disease was discovered despite avid attempts from growers and scientists to procure a solution.

“If I knew (the) answer … (I’d be) on a big boat drinking a very expensive drink, if I knew that answer,” Hudson said, laughing.

Losing land, money and livelihoods

Land is an increasingly valuable commodity in Florida for development purposes, but the citrus industry has long been a money maker for the state; thus, preservation of citrus acreage is not something only third- and fourth-generation farmers and environmentalists care about.

“Before the industry faced these multiple weather-related events in 2022, it provided an economic impact of $6.9 billion and supported more than 32,000 jobs,” said Marisa Zansler, the director of economic and market research for the Florida Department of Citrus.

In its heyday, when trucks heaved under the weight of almost 300 million boxes of ripe citrus, the industry brought in more than $9 billion and 76,336 jobs to the state.

  • Old citrus crate labels from when acreage and production were...

    Jerry Chicone Jr. Citrus Crate Label Collection

    Old citrus crate labels from when acreage and production were much higher.

  • Old citrus crate labels from when acreage and production were...

    Old citrus crate labels from when acreage and production were much higher.

  • Old citrus crate labels from when acreage and production were...

    Old citrus crate labels from when acreage and production were much higher.

  • Old citrus crate labels from when acreage and production were...

    Old citrus crate labels from when acreage and production were much higher.

  • Old citrus crate labels from when acreage and production were...

    Old citrus crate labels from when acreage and production were much higher.

For this year’s season, commercial citrus producers are expected to lose up to $675 million. The overall economic hit to the state has yet to be released.

So, does this mean less orange juice availability? Or worse, will glasses of this prominent breakfast beverage become more expensive?

Yes to both — sort of. The average price of orange juice has risen “quite considerably,” Zansler said, which is due to the nationwide inflation affecting most grocery items, but the rise is also thanks to the citrus shortages.

However, this poses a challenge to the demand consumers are exhibiting, a result of a heightened desire for health and wellness, a byproduct of the COVID-19 pandemic, Zansler said.

In order to meet the demand from these thirsty, health-conscious consumers, Florida citrus producers must increasingly rely on imports of fresh fruit and juice from other countries, such as Brazil and Mexico.

“Those imports are serving a very important role right now in order to meet that market demand and maintain that market demand,” Zansler said. “It could be that we will import as much as 40% more than we did last season in order to meet that.”

But who cares if the orange juice Floridians toss into their shopping carts contains a blend of juice from producers in the state and outside of it? If it tastes the same, what does it matter?

More imports means less domestic production, which means citrus farmers across the state continue to lose not only their jobs but their livelihoods. For many, growing citrus became their way of life as soon as they were in their teenage years.

That’s the case for Brantley Schirard Jr.

Schirard was helping his father, Brantley Schirard Sr., on their farm by about 13 years old.

Schirard Jr., now 62, said he sold at least 100 acres of citrus land and converted at least 500 in the last six years, difficult decisions he made because of how bad greening has gotten.

“I think even the worst-case scenario wouldn’t plan on being this low, and here we are.”

‘Push that golden buzzer’

For more than a century, citrus growers have fought off freezes, flooding, hurricanes and even other diseases, such as citrus canker. Each time, growers and the industry as a whole reigned victorious.

But greening has proven to be the most harmful adversary. And its ability to weaken citrus trees turn what could be surmountable threats, such as Hurricane Ian, into dire situations requiring severe damage control.

Greening has “already weakened the trees’ natural defenses, its ability to come back from other types of stresses like heat or drought or water or anything like that,” Schirard said. “We don’t take the punches as well that Mother Nature delivers.”

Like thousands of other growers across the state, Schirard is teetering on a frightening precipice: Does he continue trying different methods to keep the frail trees alive and risk losing even more money, or does he give up and either sell the land to eager developers or convert it into something else, such as pasture?

“The average citrus producer is fitting somewhere between $1,800 and $3,000 an acre,” he said, referring to the cost of the land. “I never dreamed I’d spend that kind of money per acre in my career.”

Citrus trees take several years to fully mature and produce fruit, which further magnifies growers’ stress as they have to wait and see if methods they try are actually working.

Several organizations across the state — the Florida Department of Citrus, the Citrus Research and Education Center, the Citrus Research and Development Foundation, Florida Citrus Mutual and the Florida Citrus Commission, just to name a few — are all committed to finding a way to successfully live with the disease.

And nationally, the USDA’s budget for the 2023 federal year included almost $4 million for “Plant Health,” with an increase to specifically address two things: cogongrass, an invasive grass, and citrus greening.

“Everybody keeps hoping for that silver bullet, but it doesn’t seem to be out there,” Schirard said. “We really need somebody to push that golden buzzer and really give us the push over the top to get us back where we need to be, or we’re going to be gone.”

Roofs instead of trees

Before greening marred Florida’s groves, the industry was rather self-sufficient, with most of its funds coming from a tax imposed on each box of citrus a grower produced.

But with the challenges terrorizing the billion-dollar industry, the state has stepped in to provide financial assistance.

In the most recent legislative session, about $65 million was allocated to the citrus industry in the state budget. And United States representatives, Democrat and Republican alike, continue pushing for legislation aiming to provide growers with relief.

On June 30, Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who represents Florida’s 25th district, which includes much of Broward County, joined other representatives in introducing an agriculture relief bill for farm and citrus support.

The Restore Agricultural Investment, Stability and Expansion Act of 2023 would allow the USDA to issue block grants, or a grant that can be applied to a broad range of functions, to American farmers and growers after natural disasters without waiting for congressional approval, which is how the current system works.

“We want to get relief to farmers particularly in the short term because they have devastation from citrus greening,” Wasserman Schultz told the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “If we don’t, we have the challenge of roofs being built instead of trees being grown.”

RAISE comes after the House passed HR662, the Block Grant Assistance Act of 2023, which similarly allows the USDA to issue block grants from the disaster funding that Congress passed in response to Hurricanes Ian and Nicole.

Earlier in the year, Wasserman Schultz sponsored a bill called “Defending Domestic Orange Juice Production,” which was identical to a bill introduced in the 2022 session by U.S. Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott.

The bills called to lower the federal minimum sweetness required for standard orange juice to allow citrus growers more flexibility in what oranges they could use given that greening reduces sweetness in the fruit. Both bills ultimately died in the Legislature.

But bipartisan effort still persists on the state and federal level to render relief to the swaths of exhausted growers.

“We don’t want to see all this critical farmland go away,” Wasserman Schultz said. “When people think of Florida, they think of Florida orange juice.”

South Florida certainly is not overrun with citrus groves like it used to be, but elements of the once booming industry still pervade across the region and state.

Turning heads of pedestrians and drivers in a Dania Beach parking lot is a rotund blazing structure, The Big Orange. And almost every license plate in the state is emblazoned with two bright orange bulbs.

“We won’t ever see the numbers that we produced, you know, 10 years ago,” Schirard said. “But I do believe that the industry will slowly figure this thing out.”