Like any successful business, citrus growers and nursery operations are gathering information to inform financial and operational plans for the next few years. However, it is difficult to take aim at a target that is constantly moving. Forecasts have clearly articulated the necessity for new plantings if the industry is going to stem the decline in production. We must minimally replace as many trees as we are losing. Growers are modifying grove architecture and densities while implementing young-tree management programs. In the midst of these promising developments, growers continue to witness decline in mature grove production and suffer the effects of small fruit size, low packouts, fruit drop, increased harvesting costs, and difficulty maintaining quality. While many are encouraged by the prospect of new pesticides, tolerant rootstocks, and antimicrobial and thermal therapies, the rapidly changing landscape plays havoc on the decision-making process.
Surveying The Scene
Industry stakeholders have inquired about the status of tree orders and the mindset of growers as they seek to balance the need for replacement acreage with uncertainty and an incomplete data-set. Seeking insight into this issue, I solicited the assistance of FNGLA’s Citrus Nursery Division to survey nursery owners. Fourteen nurseries completed the survey (10 during the initial request and the remaining through subsequent interviews).
The stability of tree orders may speak volumes about the mindset of the industry and its willingness to press ahead. 50% of responding nurseries indicated increasing orders compared to the past couple years. 40% are holding steady and only 10% reported a decline.
Nurseries were asked whether orders for one type of citrus fruit are more consistent than others. 80% of responses identified orders for round oranges as the most consistent and reliable, followed by navel oranges for the fresh market at 20%.
When asked about the strength of orders by production region, 40% said that orders from the southern flatwoods are the most consistent, while 64% indicated no regional differences or were unsure.
Reliance On Rootstocks
The survey asked whether orders for citrus trees have been impacted to any degree by the limited availability of potentially tolerant rootstocks and the absence of approved therapies. One third of respondents indicated these factors had negatively impacted orders or slowed them down (from what they would have been), 22% of respondents indicated these factors had influenced growers to increase orders, and the balance indicated this was either not a factor or they were unsure. It is difficult to juxtapose these answers with replies to the first question. One can only presume that the context for replies to this question is “compared to what the orders would have been — had more rootstocks or therapies been available.”
Nurseries were asked “if or when tree orders are cancelled, are you having difficulty finding new buyers for the trees?” 64% of respondents indicated that they had not experienced any significant cancellations, while 40% said that they had no difficulty reselling the trees. There were some reports of difficulty moving trees on Swingle due to concern for heightened disease susceptibility.
Some growers share the opinion that a larger caliper nursery tree accelerates field production, translating to earlier positive cash flow. Nurseries were asked whether growers are pressuring them to hold trees in the nursery longer than normal. One third of the respondents indicated growers are asking them to hold trees longer. Those who indicated growers are asking them to hold trees in the nursery longer, added that this is causing a constraint on their capacity and product turnover.
HLB And Beyond
Finally, nurseries were asked to identify emerging trends or challenges for production of citrus trees in an HLB environment. Answers included:
- Grower uncertainly about what they want. Orders can change before liners are ready to bud.
- Interest in more tolerant rootstocks and scions
- With lower production, growers are talking about cutting production costs and in some cases, this means eliminating resets.
- Growers wanting larger trees for the same price.
- Changing rootstocks within the nursery to keep pace with grower demand is a moving target and flavor of the week. We get ramped up on one and ready to go and growers want something else.
- Growers being apprehensive about trying new rootstocks, as so little data will be available.
Although this survey did not cover all or even most of the commercial Florida citrus nurseries, the responses may offer helpful insight into the issues of order stability, confidence, and concerns that may influence decisions.