There’s good and bad in the latest United States Department of Agriculture citrus forecast; projected numbers are down, though not by much, signaling stability.
USDA projections released Thursday estimate Florida growers will produce 44.95 million boxes of oranges in the current growing season.
At the start of the citrus season in October, USDA officials estimated the Sunshine State would produce 54 million boxes of oranges. Since then estimates have fallen to the tune of more than 9 million boxes. (These estimates, however, are informed guesswork and the real numbers come after the growing season ends.)
The drastic change, of course, is a result of damage inflicted by Hurricane Irma, which swept through the state in September on a path that officials have described as one that could not have been “more lethal” to Florida citrus. In October, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services estimated the citrus industry suffered a $760 million blow.
But despite May’s forecast being down 50,000 boxes from April’s, those with knowledge of the industry said the estimate is unsurprising and a sign of steadiness.
“With everything Florida Citrus growers have gone through this year, we consider today’s forecast to be relatively stable and not unexpected,” said Shannon Shepp, executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus. “This is an industry choosing to remain optimistic about the future. And part of that optimism comes from the support we’ve received from policy makers, industry and consumers.”
Projections of grapefruit, another citrus crop, also decreased by 50,000 boxes. That margin is more severe than the anticipated reduction of orange production, as the total expected amount of grapefruit is just 3.95 million boxes.
The state’s citrus industry also has been hit by the citrus greening epidemic. The so-far incurable disease attacks the fruit, causing it to turn green and bitter, and eventually killing the tree. The epidemic has waned citrus production in recent decades, though farmers were on track to bounce back — until Irma.
Referencing Irma, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said the anticipated reductions were a “reminder of the continued struggles of Florida’s iconic citrus industry.”
But he also highlighted work done in April at the federal level, which is expected to be a game changer for Florida growers. In early April, Putnam, along with Gov. Rick Scott and U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson, increased pressure on the USDA to disperse funds to Florida farmers authorized by the federal government’s $2.36 billion disaster-relief package.
Perdue also announced that a $340 million block grant would be made available to Irma-affected farmers during the 2018-2020 crop year. That’s in addition to the $2.36 billion package.
Thanking everyone involved, including the agriculture industry and elected officials at every government level, Putnam assured again on Thursday, “A much-needed disaster relief package is on the way to help growers get back on their feet.”