Citrus growers upbeat over production bump

Oranges are loaded in a trailer Thursday at Faryna Grove Care & Harvesting in Umatilla.

A rare moment of good news emerged for citrus growers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s seasonal outlooks. The federal agency updated its February citrus forecast for Florida orange production, estimating production at 56 million boxes. That’s an increase of

2 million boxes, or 4%, from the previous outlook issued in January. Kris Sutton, a grower with Faryna Grove Care & Harvesting in Umatilla, recently led a team of pickers in his groves to pick Hamlin oranges, a type of sweet orange known for its cold tolerance. He’s planning to start picking Valencias at the end of the month. So far, the crop yields and his business have been doing well, he said. “Everything’s been up most parts, so as long as we can maintain the prices, we should be good to go,” Sutton said. “More (fruit) is always better.” The updated forecast helps lend cautious optimism for the season in progress, said Shannon Shepp, executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus.

“We are hopeful growers will be able to harvest as much of the Valencia crop as possible with minimal drop in the months to come,” Shepp said.

Citrus industry experts are optimistic not only because of the updated forecast but also the pandemic-related increase in demand for Florida oranges and orange juice.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that consumers are seeking to boost their immunity, turning to the health benefits of Florida citrus,” Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said in a statement in December. “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.”

The Florida Department of Citrus estimated the percentage of Florida-sourced orange juice produced during the 2019-20 season was 57%, higher than the previous seasons due to decline in imported juice.

Locally, citrus growers are noticing higher crop yields than previous seasons and more demand for what they’re growing.

Pete Spyke, who owns orange groves in Weirsdale and Fort Pierce, said he’s seeing higher yields of juice oranges like the Valencias, which are harvested around this time of year.

That’s good news for the orange juice industry, especially in a time of high demand, he said.

“Everything is just good,” he said.

And 2021 is shaping up to be a busy year for citrus growers and orange juice processors, not only for the high crop yields and orange juice demands, but also interest from people ordering citrus online from growers like Spyke who offer gift fruit shipping. This involves growers who sell baskets of fresh fruit and locally made gifts.

“More people are buying online, and the same is true in our business,” Spyke said.

Both Spyke and Sutton are optimistic about the reversal of declining orange juice demand and consumption in recent months, though they wish it came under more positive circumstances than the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m happy with the orange juice sales, but I wish it wasn’t a pandemic,” Sutton said.

Senior writer Michael Salerno can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or michael.salerno@thevillagesmedia.com.