If Florida citrus growers are concerned that excessive fruit drop is the new normal in the era of HLB, the USDA’s December citrus forecast will not allay those fears. The agency now forecasts the 2013-2014 Florida orange crop at 121 million boxes, down 3% or 4 million boxes from its initial estimate of 125 million in November.
The USDA estimated early-mid orange varieties at 56 million boxes, down 2 million and Valencia at 65 million boxes, also down 2 million from November. The USDA’s estimate of the 2013-2014 Florida grapefruit crop is now 16.7 million boxes, down 1.1 million from November. Specialty fruit is now at 4.6 million boxes, down 150,000. The yield for frozen concentrate orange juice (FCOJ) is up slightly to 1.61 gallons per 90-pound box. The agency blamed the decrease on fruit drop and smaller sizes.
Tom Spreen, a professor emeritus in the Food and Resource Economics Department at the University of Florida, says the new estimate is alarming. “First, are we seeing a replay of last year where the crop was successively reduced over the harvest season? If so, then we already are getting closer to the smallest crop since the freeze year of 1989-1990, and it could approach that level if the crop is reduced again and again.
“Second, it is becoming apparent that the day of reckoning regarding HLB has arrived. It is clear that HLB is playing a major factor affecting the citrus crop with both premature fruit drop and small fruit size issues.”
The 2013 Florida Grower Citrus Achievement Award winner Bobby Barben says he is not surprised by USDA lowering the estimate. “It’s hard to argue with the reduction. With the small fruit sizes and drop, small crops have a tendency to get smaller. The fruit drop in some of our areas is as bad as last year, but some groves seem to be doing better so far. One grove in particular that has a few blocks of pineapple oranges is doing very poorly, with a lot of drop as well as trees crashing. In other groves, the pineapples are doing very well. These are on the same (production/enhanced nutrition) program, but in a different area with different soil type.”
“HLB continues to rear its ugly head and this decrease can be directly attributed to the stress caused by the disease,” said Mike Sparks, executive VP/CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual. “This small crop size shows how damaging HLB, or citrus greening, can be and that growers are in a fight for their lives.”
During the 2012-2013 season, Florida produced 133.6 million boxes of citrus. USDA originally projected a production of 154 million boxes last season. That number declined throughout the year due to the worst fruit drop since the 1969-1970 season.
For non-Valencia oranges this season, the USDA report states: “Current droppage, above the maximum and steadily increasing, is projected to be highest in the series dating back to 1960-1961.”
With those kind of numbers, this December forecast doesn’t lend credence to the hope last season’s fruit drop was a fluke.
Sources: USDA and Florida Citrus Mutual