Despite the seemingly bad news, there’s optimism in the groves.
Through early December, shipments were down by almost a third on grapefruit and tangerines and by 36% on navels compared to the same time last season, according to the Lakeland-based Florida Citrus Administrative Committee.
By mid-December, the grapefruit and navel numbers improved to -23% and -31%.
Since the 2005 hurricanes, fresh shipments have been declining by an average 5% a year, including last season, said committee manager Duke Chadwell.
This year, season-to-date, overall fresh shipments have declined 25% compared to 30% last year.
Working with the organization since the mid-1980s, Chadwell said this season’s numbers are for the record books.
“I’ve never seen loss like this compared to a natural disaster, freezes or hurricanes,” he said.
“To see this type of reduction in shipments is pretty unheard of. There’s always hope this is an anomaly to see such a decrease in one season. We’re still here and are still trying to be in the business. It’s just a rough road to hoe.”
Several factors could influence the steep declines, including a later than normal season start, smaller sizes, increased fruit drop and continuing losses from citrus greening, also known as huanglongbing or HLB.
The latest committee numbers show that as a percentage of shipments, fresh movement is down or similar to previous years for most oranges and grapefruit, but up for navels and tangerines.
For 2012-13, fresh grapefruit shipments were 39% of the deal, down slightly from 1994 to 2013 averages.
Interestingly, fresh white grapefruit shipments, which ship primarily to Japan, were 15% of the citrus crop, compared to the 20% previous average.
For the last season, fresh navels commanded 82% of shipments, higher than the 64% mid-1990s to 2000s averages.
Dan Richey, chief executive officer of Vero Beach, Fla.-based Riverfront Packing Co. LLC, said many factors are contributing to the losses, including a large inventory of South African grapefruit cutting into Florida shipments to Japan.
Despite the challenges confronting Florida citrus growers, Richey said he senses a bigger optimism in the industry.
He cites domestic grapefruit shipments last season increasing 6% from the previous year, shipments to Europe and Canada up 4% and 8% respectively and a 6% boost in movement to Pacific Rim countries except for Japan, which saw an 18% drop.