More Florida Citrus Producers Pondering the Lemon Pledge

Florida lemon grove
Lemons are in high demand not only for juice, but also oil.
Photo by Peter Chaires

The lemon craze certainly appears to be in full swing in Florida. Growers are gravitating to the prospect of a citrus crop that continues to produce in an HLB environment, even when surrounded by infected trees. Growers need a citrus variety that will hold on the trees and that is in relatively high demand. Though nurseries remain the primary source of information and guidance relative to planting decisions, some nurseries are reticent to engage on the issue; because like the rest of the industry, they have very little experience with lemons.

Other than some specialized lemon plantings for the fresh market and small volumes for processing, Florida has been a minor player in the lemon market since the 1962 freeze. Coke (Minute Maid) did plant some acreage in the 1960s and the Seminole Tribe of Florida followed suit in the 1970s, collectively producing an estimated 550,000 boxes of lemons. It has been reported Minute Maid abandoned its acreage in 1980s after freezes and eventually for economic reasons. However, necessity remains the mother of invention and growers now appear willing to put their frost-protection skills to the test in order to supply market demand.

Demand for the Product

Lemon demand flows from two markets: juice and oil. Lemonade and variants thereof are among the fastest growing products in the beverage category. Florida’s climate is ideal for juice production. When you add robust tree performance into the discussion, it should come as no surprise that Florida citrus growers are gravitating to lemons. What adds another dimension to the lemon conversation is the second and perhaps more important market: lemon oil. Global demand for lemon oil remains strong. This summer, the price was hovering around $24 per pound. Oil recovery and oil quality will be key factors for processing plants entering this market. Both factor into grower returns and decisions related to varieties.

Lemon tree in Florida full of fruit
Photo by Peter Chaires

Fresh vs. Processed

Undoubtedly, most of the new lemon plantings will go into the processed channel. Florida has only one fresh packinghouse running lemons. Indian River Exchange Packers (IREP) starts its season with lemons, and has a level of expertise with harvesting, packing, and marketing. Lemons require a different de-greening temperature range than other citrus, and IREP has made this investment and is well positioned to benefit from recent plantings. That being said, production of Florida lemons for the fresh market presents a load of challenges.

First, harvesting begins (depending on available volume) somewhere between mid-July and mid-August. It requires some careful planning and management to move from lemons to the next earliest varieties without a time gap. Second, like other citrus, lemons for the fresh market must be harvested when they are dry. Since lemons mature during the rainy season and cannot be harvested until early afternoon, and inevitably, the rains come in mid- to late afternoon, the balancing act can be frustrating and expensive.

Adding to the dilemma of handling in the field is the fact lemons have a high degree of susceptibility to skin breakdown. Blue and green molds and sour rot are challenges to the packinghouse.

Finally, Florida is and will likely remain a very small player in the American fresh lemon market, which means we will be a price follower rather than price leader. California and Arizona offer a longer season and retailers will not compromise those relationships. However, for those who can manage the process and the market, there may be opportunity. Bottom line: Unless the grower has a juice contract, the market will be quite limited.

Crop Insurance

RMA is in the process of considering the Florida counties that will be included in the lemon production area where risk of loss to cold weather is manageable. This currently appears to include: St. Lucie, Indian River, Polk, Hendry, Collier, Highlands, and Lee. However, specific situations can be addressed through the crop insurance program.

Current Volume and Projections

Estimations show approximately 200 to 250 acres of lemons currently in production in Florida. Over the past three years, roughly 400,000 trees have been propagated; but nearly 124,000 of those were registered for use as budwood increase. This would leave about 276,000 trees going into commercial production over the past three years. At a 140 trees per acre average – this would be another 1,970 acres of commercial lemons on the way.

This raises the question why so many increase trees are needed. It is likely that this number is too high, the likely result of nursery reporting errors. Nonetheless, even if this number is reduced significantly, it shows nurseries are ramping up for some serious lemon propagations. 

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One processor offered an incentive plan for growers to plant lemons and fully subscribed its program for 50,000 trees (resulting in average 137 trees per acre, or 365 acres). Other processors have similar incentive programs, but specifics are hard to come by. Estimates are as high as another 5,000 acres, but an additional 1,500 to 2,500 acres is more realistic. To put this in scale, USDA-National Agricultural Statistics Service shows California having approximately 41,500 acres of lemons in production and Arizona about 8,250 acres. Growers interested in planting lemons should contact their processing plant and inquire whether greater allotments of trees will be added to their tree incentive programs and how the pricing will be structured

Vetting Varieties

It is important growers verify with their processor whether there are specific lemon varieties that are preferred for their oil profile. The three main commercial lemon variety types are: ‘Bearss’ (which reportedly has fewer thorns), ‘Eureka,’ and ‘Lisbon.’ Presently, ‘Bearss’ and ‘Eureka’ appear to be the leading varieties for Florida growers. Most processing plants seem to value the oil and juice from both of these varieties. Very few ‘Lisbon’ lemons are being planted (probably due to lack of experience with the variety).

The ‘Harvey’ lemon, another Florida variety, is thought to be good for fresh packing, but its value for processing is still under evaluation.

New Twist to Freeze Protection

Lemon trees are susceptible to damage and loss of bloom due to freeze. Proper use of microjet irrigation will certainly improve one’s odds, but one grower is taking a different twist. He has been growing lemons successfully in Lake County for almost 20 years. His lemons are utilized in processing. He plants all of his trees as rooted cuttings, so that if the trees freeze to the ground, they come back as lemons and he is able to recover more quickly.

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