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Production of the official fruit of Florida continues to plummet as the first forecast from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for the 2016-2017 growing season indicates a 14 percent drop in the state's orange crop.
On Wednesday, the USDA predicted farmers will have enough oranges to fill 70 million boxes for the season. Last season, Florida produced 81.5 million boxes, a 52-year low. This latest forecast shows that the region is in the midst of the worst orange harvest crisis since records began in 1913, according to The Guardian.
After the announcement, Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam said that the forecast is disheartening and further proof of the difficult times facing Florida's citrus industry which has been dealing with citrus greening, an incurable bacterial disease that can kill a tree within two years.
Citrus greening disease on mandarin oranges.T.R. Gottwald and S.M. Garnsey / USDA
"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," Putnam said. "We must continue to support our growers and provide them with every tool available to combat greening."
The state has set aside $8 million in the budget to help fight against greening, in addition to $14.7 million for a citrus health response program within the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, reports The Tampa Bay Times. Farmers themselves have put $100 million into fighting the disease that is spread through hurricanes and storms that hit the state.
"Farmers are giving up on oranges altogether," Judith Ganes, president of the commodities research firm J Ganes Consulting, told The Guardian. "Normally after a freeze or a hurricane [which both kill lots of trees], the growers would replant 100% of their plants. But the disease has been spread all over by hurricanes, and made it totally uncontrollable. Farmers are giving up and turning to other crops or turning land over to housing."
This, in turn, is causing the steep rise in wholesale prices and companies are getting more creative in how they sell their juice in stores either by making the cartons smaller or blending the juice with other fruits or water.
So far, The Guardian reports that these methods have kept prices from increasing in grocery stores for now, in addition to the fact that demand for orange juice is down.
"U.S. consumers have it in their mind that orange juice is high in sugar, which it is, but it's natural sugars that don't contribute to obesity," John Michalik, a beverages expert at the Canadian division of the market research group Global Data, said. "People are not having the full breakfast at home like they used to. Now almost all breakfasts are a coffee and sandwich or snack on the go."
While some farmers may be abandoning the orange industry, Michael Sparks, vice president and CEO of grower group Florida Citrus Mutual, which represents many of the 62,000 people employed in the state's citrus industry, said Wednesday that their farmers are not giving up yet.
"The 2016-17 citrus season is here and we are cautiously optimistic heading into it," he said. "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."