Florida citrus industry in trouble as orange production falls

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Florida oranges are set for a down year as the U.S. Department of Agriculture projects a 15% decrease in the state's orange production for the 2020-21 harvesting season, as well as a 7% decrease in grapefruit production.

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The USDA predicts the Sunshine State's orange growers will harvest 57 million boxes of oranges this season, down from 67 in 2019-2020.

Grapefruit production, meanwhile, is projected to fall from 4.85 million boxes to 4.5.

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Florida’s Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried cited greening, a disease that depletes citrus plants after infecting them, as a challenge that Florida farmers have faced with their citrus crops.

Florida oranges wait to be harvested in a grove in Plant City, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

“Despite the challenges that Florida’s citrus growers have faced as a result of citrus greening (Huanglongbing disease), I continue to be encouraged by the resiliency of this industry, its producers, and their commitment to new plantings, research, and innovation,” Fried said in a statement after the USDA report was released Friday.

Greening has wreaked havoc on Florida's oranges and the citrus industry in other states to a lesser extent. Once the bacteria infects a tree, it leads to defoliation, fruit dropping early, and the tree's eventual death.

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According to a 2019 study in the journal Frontiers, from 2008-2018, greening was responsible for a 72% decrease in the production of oranges that are processed for juices and other products, and a 21% decrease in the production of fresh oranges.

While there isn't a cure for the disease, farmers are hopeful that a greening-resistant tree may one day be developed. At least $90 million has been spent on greening research since 2008.

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There are many other factors outside of greening though that could also be contributing to the decreased production of oranges.

“Florida citrus growers are finding success through innovative mitigation efforts to fight citrus greening in their groves. Today’s forecast is more likely reflective of factors beyond grower control typical of the agricultural growth cycle than any one issue," said Shannon Shepp, executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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