Florida citrus faces slow, uncertain recovery

By Anthony Fletcher

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Citrus, Orange juice

An upbeat forecast for Florida's 2005-06 citrus crop is good news,
but it still leaves the industry a long way from fully recovering
from devastating disease and natural disaster.

After being battered by blight and uprooted by successive waves of hurricanes, Florida's citrus industry is gradually getting back into shape.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) said that it expects the state to produce 27 percent more oranges this year, and industry experts are confident that the crop shows that the state's citrus industry is recovering from the hurricanes of 2004. Florida will produce 190 million boxes of oranges, 24 million boxes of grapefruit and 8.3 million boxes of specialty fruit.

"We are very pleased with the forecast,"​ said Dan Gunter, executive director of Florida Department of Citrus (FDoC) at a recent press conference.

"The numbers are in range of our expectations."

Nonetheless, the figures are still well below the pre-hurricane levels before 2004, with inevitable knock-on effects on the price of ingredients and commodities such as orange juice.

"The Florida crop has increased substantially, but because inventories have been depleted and there is some improvement in consumer demand, the worldwide availability of orange juice is still below last year,"​ said Bob Norberg, the FDOC's director of economic and market research.

In the late summer and early fall 2004, three hurricanes hit Florida's citrus belt knocking fruit from trees and making the crop one of the smallest in nearly two decades. In fact, storm damage to orchards and trees last year resulted in the smallest Florida fresh grapefruit crop in recorded history.

In addition, the industry has been devastated by disease. Citrus canker, first detected in Miami in October 1995, was in the process of being eradicated when the hurricanes spread the disease across the region.

And more worryingly, a plant condition from China known as yellow dragon disease or citrus greening has been found in southeast Florida and appears to be spreading. Although the disease poses no direct health threat to humans, it can be devastating to citrus trees and the industry.

There is a general feeling that given such a bad run of luck, the USDA's official figures are as good as could be expected.

"This estimate shows the industry is still feeling the impacts of last year's hurricanes as production continues to rebound and canker has claimed 65,000 acres of grove acreage this year alone,"

said Andy LaVigne, executive vice president/CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual.

Indeed despite the upturn, the industry's long-term outlook remains uncertain. Southeastern Florida, famous for its high-quality grapefruit and oranges, is also one of the fastest-growing areas for both commercial and residential development.

Some growers feel that the threat of canker, more hurricanes and - most recently - citrus greening disease make it too risky to replant.

The FDOC remains optimistic however. USDA secretary Mike Johanns recently announced $53.75 million in emergency funds to eradicate citrus canker, in to the $42.6 million promised by President Bush in his fiscal 2006 budget.

In addition, the FDOC points out that increased citrus consumption fits with the general trend towards growing consumer awareness about nutrition and health.

"Our research shows that consumers are becoming more aware of the nutritional quality of their foods and how that affects their health and well-being,"​ said Gunter. "This is the foundation for our marketing programs, and we are very optimistic that consumer demand for naturally nutritious foods, such as 100 percent orange juice and grapefruit juice will increase.

"Orange juice and grapefruit juice are some of the most naturally nutrient-rich beverages on the market. Our job at FDOC is to make sure that story is heard and understood by consumers."

The Florida citrus industry has a $9.1 billion economic impact to the state, employs nearly 90,000 people and covers 750,000 acres in the state.

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