Florida's Citrus Industry Faces an Uncertain Future
Breakfast would not be complete for many of us without a glass of orange juice or a grapefruit from Florida. "A day without orange juice is like a day without sunshine" was Florida oranges' popular slogan in the 1970s.
Today, however, once-lush orange and grapefruit groves lie barren throughout the state. Packing plants have been shuttered and consumers and businesses increasingly rely on product from other domestic and international producers. Acreage devoted to citrus farming has shrunk 53 percent over the past 20 years, and that land now holds housing developments, solar farms, and alternative crops.
What happened to the iconic industry that for decades delighted consumers and bolstered the state's economy? And can it return to its former glory?
Industry roots five centuries deep
The Florida citrus industry is around 500 years old, with roots that can be traced to early Spanish settlers. Citrus trees are believed to have been first planted in Florida between 1513 and 1565. Over the centuries, the industry grew and became increasingly profitable. With the development of steamboats and railways in the 1800s, Florida citrus crops could be more widely transported and sold. After the Great Freeze of 1894–95 wiped out much of the industry in northern Florida, it became more concentrated in the middle and southern parts of the state. A fruit fly infestation in the 1920s was another setback, but the development of citrus concentrate by the Florida Citrus Commission in the 1940s allowed juice to be frozen, stored, and transported, increasing the market for and popularity of Florida orange juice.
The industry's strength continued into the 21st century. The Florida Department of Citrus estimated that in 2021, citrus supported 32,542 jobs and contributed nearly $7 billion in output in the state. Citrus growing is especially vital in many rural areas where the economy is centered around its production and where soil and conditions are not ideal for other crops.
According to data from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Florida was the longtime leader in the US citrus industry. In the 2001–02 season, Florida generated 79 percent of the citrus produced in the United States. By the 2021–22 season, its output had fallen to 36 percent, and California became the leading citrus-producing state (see the chart). California's citrus production in tonnage rose 42 percent between 2001–02 and 2021–22, but with Florida's production weakening—total output in tons fell 80 percent during that same timeframe—the United States’ overall citrus production fell 57 percent.
Florida’s drop in production resulted from both lower yields and decreased acreage planted because of disease, which has drastically reduced the average life span of Florida citrus trees and increased the cost of their care. While fresh fruit prices remain strong, margins are squeezed on oranges used for juicing, the main use of those from Florida, so citrus is less profitable to produce.
21st-century challenges push production decline
Citrus production in Florida peaked in the 1990s, with a record yield of 304 million boxes in the 1997–98 season. Production has since fallen steadily and sharply to 41 million boxes in the 2021–22 season, an 85 percent decline and its lowest level since 1938, a few years before the development of frozen concentrate.
Florida orange production declined from 244 million boxes in the 1997–98 season to 41 million boxes in 2021–22, an 83 percent decline. In late September 2022, Hurricane Ian hit the already struggling industry, destroying many groves. While numbers are not final, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimated in April that Florida would produce only about 16 million boxes of oranges in the 2022–23 season, which is about 61 percent lower than last year.
The once-dominant Florida citrus industry has taken numerous blows, most notably from the presence of new diseases that have ravaged Florida's citrus crops since the start of the 21st century. Says Matt Joyner, chief executive officer of Florida Citrus Mutual in a personal conversation: "You really have to want to farm citrus to be in the industry now," adding that many "people who are still in the industry are multigenerational growers."
Canker and greening
In 1995, a bacterial disease known as citrus canker, present in Florida in the early 1900s but not detected since 1933, was found in Florida citrus crops. Canker can spread by wind or touch and is distributed fast and far during hurricanes. While not harmful to eat, fruit infected by citrus canker tends to fall early and is too visually unattractive to be sold. Over time, trees affected by canker cease to produce fruit.
The discovery of citrus canker caused panic and crop destruction in an effort to eradicate the disease. A cure for canker has not been discovered, but methods of slowing the spread include planting windbreaks, rows of tall plants such as eucalyptus or bamboo that can block the disease from invading nearby groves. While citrus canker has not been eradicated, it has not caused the devastation to the industry that some feared.
While the industry remained fairly resilient despite citrus canker, it was dealt a massive blow by citrus greening, or Huanglongbing, which has also infected trees in California and Texas. First detected in Florida in 2005, it contributed to a rapid decline in production, which fell by more than 40 percent that season and continues to drop.
Citrus greening is a bacterial disease commonly transmitted by psyllids, a small plant-feeding insect. Fruit affected by greening is not dangerous to consumers, but it tastes bitter. Trees infected with greening are significantly weakened and more susceptible to damage, need more care, and generally die within a few years. Citrus greening also significantly reduces yield of viable fruit per acre planted. Trees affected by greening also require more fertilizer, raising the cost of production and putting extra pressure on margins.
Hurricanes and other concerns
Hurricanes can cause wind and water damage to Florida’s agriculture, and to citrus in particular. They can also spread disease. Hurricane Irma in 2017 reduced Florida's citrus production by more than 62 percent that year. In late September 2022, Hurricane Ian made landfall in Southwest Florida and tore through the southern and central portions of the state, dealing a serious blow to the already struggling industry. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services estimates that Ian caused between $417 million and $676 million in damages to the industry and affected roughly 375,302 acres of citrus groves.
The USDA in April estimated that Ian's damages will lead to a 61 percent decrease year over year in Florida orange production and a 49 percent decrease in Florida grapefruit production. While there is hope for a better season next year, some storm damage will affect yields for the next few years.
Along with natural occurrences, labor shortages that have challenged the industry since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic also constrain citrus supply. Especially because the fruits need to be handpicked, citrus is a labor-intensive industry. Some packing plants note that lower-volume crops have significantly reduced the length of the packing season, making it a less desirable job.
On the demand side, Florida faces more foreign and domestic competition. Citrus production in the United States outside of Florida grew nearly 28 percent from 2001 to 2020, according to the USDA, but disease remains the state industry’s main obstacle
Looking forward with hope
Despite grim conditions, Florida citrus farmers remain hopeful. Research into fighting greening has shown promise and over the past two decades has focused on three ways to combat the disease—stopping the psyllid bug, treating infected trees, and growing trees resistant to greening.
A growing method called "citrus under protective screen" (CUPS), which involves enclosing crops under screens to prevent psyllids from reaching the plants and spreading the disease, has attracted interest. While this method is costly, it has proven effective. According to the University of Florida, over 550 acres of CUPS were planted in Florida in 2022.
At a USDA lab in Fort Pierce, Florida, scientists use genetics to identify hybrids that could be resistant to greening and collaborate with local growers to test new species in the field. Promising developments have been made in this area, and many are hopeful that greening-resistant trees can revitalize the industry.
Soilcea, a University of South Florida incubator company, creates CRISPR-edited citrus trees that are resistant to canker and greening. Unlike traditional genetically modified organisms—known as GMOs—that involve inserting a foreign gene (like a bacterial gene) into a plant, CRISPR breeding can make small deletions in genes that make a tree susceptible to citrus greening and canker. Nature constantly deletes DNA susceptible to diseases and slowly adopts the beneficial change through natural selection, so the company is relying on a natural process in an effort to help the Florida citrus industry.
Alternative crops and land use
While the Florida citrus industry perseveres and many are hopeful that it will rebound to its former strength, some farmers are also finding the need to diversify, at least in the short term. Land that was once used exclusively for citrus groves now hosts other crops and uses.
One crop gaining popularity is the Pongamia pinnata. Native to India, the tree grows under similar conditions to citrus but is not known to be affected by greening, is touted for being resilient, produces beans high in protein for human consumption, contains a natural pesticide, and can also be used as an environmentally friendly fuel source. However, unlike citrus trees, Pongamia is not self-pollinating. For many growers, even those who diversify out of economic necessity, returning to profitable citrus remains the long-term goal.
Searching for the silver bullet
The citrus industry has long contributed to the Florida and US economies but has faced severe challenges in the past two decades, largely from diseases. However, efforts are being made across the state to move the industry into the future. Says Florida Citrus Mutual's Joyner: "All is not lost … the silver bullet will be finding greening-resistant trees through breeding.” So raise a glass of juice to the determined people fighting to keep Florida’s historic industry alive.
The authors thank George Hamner, a member of the Atlanta Fed’s Advisory Council on Agriculture, for providing an in-depth perspective on the conditions of Florida’s citrus industry, as well as Greg Nelson (Sun-Ag and Egan Packing), former Miami Branch board member Cody Estes (Estes Fruit Company), Ron Edwards (Evans Properties), Doug Bournique (Indian River Citrus League), Dan Richey (Riverfront Packing), Tom Hammond (Hammond Groves and Sebastian River Farms), Bobby, Mary Grace, and Natalie Sexton (Oslo Citrus Growers Association and Orchid Island Juice), Dave Cortez and Bill Martinelli, (Orchid Island Juice), and Randy Niedz and Matt Mattia (US Department of Agriculture) for their assistance.