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.
Growers are adding new plantings and Richey said he thinks the acreage numbers are beginning to bottom out.
Overall, the state harvests from 544,062 acres, nearly a third less than the 836,051 acres of groves growers harvested in 2000, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Growers were scratching their heads trying to figure out how to combat greening but recently concluded that it’s a challenge the industry can meet through multiple approaches, and Richey said the trees are reacting positively to nutritional treatments.
Richey said the renewed optimism isn’t unrealistic.
“Florida citrus isn’t going anywhere,” he said.
“There will always be a Florida citrus industry. It’s changing like any industry. I believe we have a very sustainable model.”
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