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Less land for Florida's citrus growers contributes to a struggling industry

Citrus greening shrinks the size of oranges.
Jessica Meszaros
WUSF Public Media
Along with development pressures from Florida’s growing population, the industry has struggled for years with a bacterial disease known as citrus greening.

The U.S. Department of Justice says fewer acres were used during the last citrus season, which was the worst for orange production in the last eight decades.

As they prepare for the 2022-2023 season, Florida citrus growers are using 32,046 fewer acres than during the past season and about half of what was used two decades ago, according to a federal report.

With the industry coming off perhaps its least-productive season in eight decades, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported Wednesday that 375,302 acres are being used for citrus production in Florida, down 8% from last year and 53% from what growers used in the 2001-2002 season.

“Of the 24 published counties included in the survey, 23 recorded decreases in acreage while one county — Brevard — showed an increase,” the report said of the year-to-year changes. “Hendry County lost the most acreage, down 6,640 acres from the previous season. DeSoto County records the most citrus acres at 64,641 acres.”

Along with development pressures from Florida’s growing population, the industry has struggled for years with a bacterial disease known as citrus greening. It also has faced increased labor costs, competition from foreign imports and damage from hurricanes, such as 2017’s Hurricane Irma, which tore through major citrus-producing areas.

The industry and the state have taken a variety of steps to try to deal with citrus greening, which is more formally known as huanglongbing, or HLB.

The federal report said orange groves, now at 343,659 acres, make up most of the state’s citrus land. Valencia is the dominant variety grown. The overall total of orange-producing land is down 8 percent from last year and down 47% from the 2001-2002 season.

Grapefruit acreage is now at 17,997 acres, down 10% from the 2021-2022 season and 83% from 2001-2002. Red grapefruit is the most-common type.

During the 2021-2022 season, growers produced enough oranges to fill 40.95 million industry-standard 90-pound boxes and 3.3 million boxes with grapefruit, according to a season-ending report issued in July.

The outputs were the lowest since the 1942-1943 season for oranges and the 1917-2018 season for grapefruit.

Growers in Polk County, with 66,969 acres, produced the most citrus during the past season, filling 7.77 million boxes. DeSoto County was next at 6.8 million boxes. Highlands County growers filled 6.65 million boxes, and Hendry County was at 5.5 million boxes.

In the 2001-2002 season, Florida growers produced enough to fill 230 million boxes of oranges and 46.7 million boxes of grapefruit.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is set to issue an initial forecast for the 2022-2023 growing season on Oct. 12.

The state budget that went into effect July 1 included $37 million for the industry, with the biggest chunks of money being $17 million for Department of Citrus marketing programs, $8 million for research programs, and $6.2 million for what is known as the Citrus Health Response Program, which includes cultivating new trees resistant to greening.

Meanwhile, one benefit of the COVID-19 pandemic was an increase in sales of orange juice as people sought healthier drink options.