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Florida’s citrus farmers optimistic in spite of challenges

Photo by Jason Richard on Unsplash

BY KENNETH WITKOWICH

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Florida citrus growers expect 42 million boxes of fruit this season as they enter year 17 of citrus greening, however, opinions on Florida’s citrus producing future are mixed.

Citrus greening was first discovered in Florida in 2005, and it has caused a decline in citrus production. In 2003, Florida produced over 200 million boxes of citrus fruit. In 2022, Florida will produce about 42 million boxes.

Citrus greening is a disease that is spread by the Asian Citrus Psyllid, an insect that feeds off the plant. Michael Rogers is the director of the University of Florida’s Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred. Rogers said citrus greening is the main reason citrus production has been in decline. Due to citrus greening, the trees that are in the field today do not produce as much fruit as they did 20 years ago, he said.

Florida is mostly a juice producing state, Rogers said. Valencia and Hamlin oranges are grown in large quantities in Florida because they are best for juicing. However, citrus greening has affected those species the worst. He said lemons and Mandarin oranges are less affected than other species but are not grown in Florida in large quantities.

Rogers said using different fertilization and watering practices can make trees stronger, and plant hormones can reduce stress that the disease can cause. He said that these tactics were not solutions to the problem but rather tools that growers are using. Rogers has heard positive responses from farmers that some of these tactics are proving successful.

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Costs are another main concern for farmers. Fertilizer and diesel prices have affected citrus farming operations. Rogers said that the cost to grow citrus has gone up tremendously.

“If it’s not the disease, its economics,” Rogers said.

Although there is much to be done, Rogers said, he is optimistic about Florida’s citrus industry. The Center works very closely with farmers, and Rogers said his researchers learn as much from farmers as farmers learn from his researchers.

John Chater, who is an assistant professor in horticultural sciences at UF, expects challenges for growers and processors this harvest season. 

Chater works with citrus breeders who are working very hard to overcome this problem. He said he has had developments in his research, and he is researching new resistant varieties and testing chemicals and fertilization methods.

Chater said that there is a collective effort to increase citrus production. Chater has solid relationships with farmers, and he is developing more relationships with other researchers and government agencies to increase production and find a solution.

Tamara Wood is the communications consultant at Florida Citrus Mutual, the state’s largest trade association for citrus growers. Wood said growers are working closely with UF researchers on new planting methods, pest management, and varieties to combat citrus greening.

Wood said the effort is industry wide. Florida growers have invested millions of their own dollars and have a self-imposed tax on every box, which is used solely for greening research. 

“They have their own blood, sweat, tears, and finances in this,” Wood said.

Wood said that certain fertilizers have had over one hundred percent increase in costs. She said farmers care less about increasing profit and more about staying in the business.

Wood said in 2012, 146.7 million boxes were produced in Florida, over three times the 42 million boxes expected in 2022.

Wood said she is optimistic about the future of citrus production and added that about 25% of current farming acreage is new plantings that are less than five years old.

Florida’s citrus industry employs more than 33,000 people and has an economic impact of $6.8 billion.

Wood said there are thousands of growers in the state who remain devoted to producing quality citrus fruit.

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