Citrus industry makes a bigger economic impact

Freshly picked oranges are loaded in a trailer at Faryna Grove Care in Umatilla. Florida’s citrus growers are optimistic about a slight production increase to 52.7 million boxes of oranges in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s penultimate forecast of the 2020-21 season.

The shine on Florida’s orange gold increased over the last year, even with fewer oranges harvested. Despite statewide production declines, Florida oranges and orange juice commanded a greater economic impact in the 2019-20 season than the previous year. The citrus industry’s $6.76 billion economic impact that season was about $262 million more than 2018-19. Meanwhile, growers are optimistic about a slight production increase to 52.7 million boxes of oranges in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s penultimate forecast of the 2020-21 season.

The COVID-19 pandemic contributed to industry growth as people sought oranges and orange juice to boost their bodies’ immunity, said Shannon Shepp, executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus.

“Even at a time when many industries faced economic uncertainty, the Florida citrus industry continued to provide strong economic contributions to the state of Florida and the many small communities it serves and supports,” she said.

Greater Value

Florida’s citrus industry remains a critical driver of the state’s economy, even after extreme weather events and destructive diseases tested its staying power for decades.

Its economic growth in the last season came largely from manufacturing orange juice and its byproducts, which was valued at $4.74 billion in 2019-20, according to the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) Economic Impact Analysis Program, which conducted the research.

More than 90% of the oranges produced in Florida are grown for orange juice, according to Shelley Rossetter, spokeswoman with the Citrus Department.

Florida’s citrus industry also supports more than 33,000 jobs that produced more than $1.5 billion in wages, salaries, benefits and business proprietor income, in turn leading to $140 million in state and local taxes and $360 million in federal taxes, according to UF/IFAS.

Production Slightly Improves

Adding to the more positive outlook is a forecast production increase over a month prior.

In its penultimate citrus outlook for the 2020-21 season, the USDA projected Florida orange production would end the season at 52.7 million boxes of oranges, up 2% from the previous month’s projection.

One box of oranges is equal to 90 pounds of fruit, according to the USDA.

“Health-conscious consumers are continuing to fuel demand for citrus and its immunity-boosting properties, and Florida’s citrus growers are meeting that demand with the world’s finest citrus,” said Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried in a statement.

Ups and Downs

Despite the month-over-month increase, this season’s orange harvest overall is down from the 67.4 million boxes produced last year.

Orange production declined in recent years because of the incurable citrus greening disease, a bacterial infection transmitted by a small insect called the Asian citrus psyllid. Citrus greening, also known as huanglongbing, may deform fruit and kill orange trees.

Growers are encouraged by opportunities in the citrus industry that lie ahead, despite the ups and downs of the current season, Shepp said.

She pointed to the 2021-22 state budget signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, which includes $27.7 million in funding for citrus including $17 million for her department’s marketing efforts.

“We ... are committed to preserving the future of our state’s signature crop,” Shepp said. “There is work to do, but I know of no other industry more resilient, hardworking or better suited for the job than ours.”

Proving Resiliency

Part of preserving that future involves defending Florida’s status as the top orange producer in the nation — a status that came under threat in recent months.

California surpassed Florida’s orange production in the USDA’s April and May outlooks, a rare occurrence given Florida’s industry dominance.

But the 2% increase to 52.7 million boxes of Florida oranges edged out California’s 52 million, which held steady from May.

“I’m glad to see Florida restored as the nation’s leading producer of oranges, as we hope for a strong finish to the season for grapefruit and specialty citrus,” Fried said.

Local Growers Thrive

Locally, Lake and Marion counties are home to a number of growers who cultivate oranges for orange juice and fresh fruit sales at farmers markets, farm stands and through gift fruit shipping.

Kris Sutton of Faryna Grove Care, whose oranges help in part to supply oranges for Florida’s Natural orange juice, reported a “pretty well” growing season in 2020-21.

“The number of boxes we picked was better than last year,” he said. “Valencias, Hamlins and navels were all along the same lines. They weren’t going down, and that’s always good for us.”

Looking to the next growing season, Sutton just finished fertilizing and spraying his orange trees and is continuing maintenance through the summer months as next year’s fruits start to grow and ripen.

As for whether the citrus industry will continue to see a high value even as the COVID-19 pandemic starts winding down, he offered cautious optimism.

“Hopefully, yes,” Sutton said. “And I think it will.”

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