Last year, an unusually low orange yield in Florida drove the costs of orange juice to record-breaking highs — and there are fears those trends could continue, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture is optimistic for a rebound in 2024.
What’s causing the low yields (and high prices)?
A recent report from NBC confirmed that the flagging numbers are driven by two factors: Weather damage and disease.
As The Cool Down has previously covered, Hurricanes Ian and Nicole damaged much of 2023’s orange harvest in Florida, leading to skyrocketing prices — and Idalia did further damage to crops. While Idalia wasn’t as damaging as Ian — causing almost half a billion in agricultural damages overall, per estimates, compared to Ian’s billion-plus — it was still bad news for citrus farmers.
Any trees that survived the storms faced an even deadlier enemy, in the form of diseases, namely citrus canker and citrus greening, described by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Citrus greening, or Huanglongbing, is a disease that’s harmless to humans but fatal to trees. It’s caused by bacteria transmitted from an invasive insect. Citrus canker, which is also bacterial and not harmful to humans, is spread by wind, rain, water, and human and animal activity — in other words, it’s difficult to contain.
“I would say, nationwide, consumers should be concerned,” Lisa Marie Roth, an orange grower and owner of Bob Roth’s New River Groves in Florida, said in the December NBC report, before the USDA’s updated forecast provided more optimism for 2024. The USDA announced in January it was projecting an uptick of 30% more boxes of oranges produced over the 90-year low from 2023, as ABC News’ Tampa affiliate WFTS-TV reported.
Even with that updated forecast, the Florida orange industry is just trying to view any improvement over last year as a win.
“We still think we’re going to realize an increase over last year,” said Matt Joyner, the executive vice president and CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual, to WFTS, in reaction to the USDA’s forecast. “Frankly, after two hurricanes and a freeze going into last season, if we were flat or any increase is going to be a success for this industry this year.”
Why are these numbers so concerning?
Beyond the squeeze on consumers’ wallets, there’s a growing fear that the orange industry may vanish. Nearly 90% of citrus groves in Florida are affected by disease, and growers are scrambling to contain the spread.
“Greening will destroy the fruit, destroy the trees,” Robert Roth, fellow owner at Bob Roth’s, told NBC. “If they don’t find satisfactory remedies to all these diseases, [we] could possibly go under completely.”
Additionally, the growing frequency of climate-related extreme weather events and warming could make both weather-related damage and the spreading of diseases like canker even easier.
Kyle Story, the president of Florida Citrus Mutual, told ABC’s Tampa affiliate that treatments to combat greening look promising so far. “We feel that there is a lot of reason to be optimistic,” he said.
What’s being done?
Florida growers were hoping for relief from the USDA after hurricane season, but their proposed federal Block Grant Assistance Act failed in November — though other sources of aid and funding may still be forthcoming.
Some are trying to stay positive, including the Roths. “I’d like to be optimistic … that we will have citrus [in the future],” Lisa Marie Roth told NBC. She and Robert have introduced agritourism to keep afloat in the hopes of a stronger season to come. Additionally, scientists are still racing to try to find a cure for greening.
Beyond actions that can help the citrus industry itself, those who don’t want to worry about grocery aisle prices can also try growing their own food, though what one can grow at home depends on the climate and soil in the area.
Specific ways to help prevent the spread of disease can be found on the USDA’s website, such as not moving citrus trees or produce from one area to another where other trees are present. More broadly, efforts to reduce the overheating of our planet, and therefore prevent the rise of extreme weather events that become more likely in hotter temperatures, will support healthier futures for all types of agriculture.
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