Florida’s signature crop, the orange, continues to be battered by greening disease, and the federal government’s first forecast of the 2016-17 is a bleak one. It’s shaping up to be worse than last season’s when the crop reached a 52-year low.
The state’s commercial orange crop will be an estimated 70 million boxes, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said Wednesday. That’s a drop of more than 11 million boxes from last season’s 81.6 million boxes, which was 70 percent lower than 20 years ago.
As recently as 2013-14, Florida citrus growers produced 104.7 million 90-pound boxes of orange oranges. Production has declined from a peak of 244 million boxes during the 1997-1998 season.
Over the last decade, Florida’s commercial groves have been crippled by greening, a bacterial disease. Spread by the Asian citrus psyllid, it attacks a tree’s vascular system and can kill it within two years.
In September 2005, U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists confirmed the first U.S. detection of greening on samples of pummelo leaves and fruit from a Miami-Dade County grove.
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said Wednesday, “Although not unexpected, today’s initial citrus crop forecast is disheartening and further proof of the trying times facing Florida’s citrus industry. Production of our state’s signature crop is down 70 percent from 20 years ago, and the future of Florida citrus depends on a breakthrough in the fight against greening. We must continue to support our growers and provide them with every tool available to combat greening.”
Development of land into commercial and residential uses has also played a role in the shrinking crop, but greening and other diseases are the main cause. Florida’s commercial citrus acreage has dropped to 480,121 acres this year, from 857,687 acres in 1996,the USDA said last month. That said, the state still has 50.8 million bearing orange trees.
The state will produce an estimated 9.6 million boxes of grapefruit, down from 10.8 million last season. In 2013-14 Florida produced 15.65 million boxes of grapefruit, the USDA said.
Michael Sparks, vice president and CEO of grower group Florida Citrus Mutual said Wednesday, “The 2016-17 citrus season is here and we are cautiously optimistic heading into it. The all Florida orange forecast number of 70 million boxes is about what we expected, and although it’s low Florida growers will again use their trademark resilience to bring consumers the best citrus in the world.”