Two bright oranges and three orange blossoms are boldly displayed on the center of most Florida vehicle license plates. That’s fitting; it’s unlikely that anything is more associated with Florida than citrus, except possibly sunshine.
Citrus is a major contributor to Florida’s economy. A December 2014 study by the University of Florida indicated the citrus industry had a $10.68 billion annual economic impact on the state and created or supported 62,133 full-time and part-time jobs.
In 2015, citrus was grown on 501,396 acres in Florida. Citrus production for the 2015-16 season was forecast by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) at 94.5 million boxes. A box is 90 pounds of oranges, 85 pounds of grapefruit and 95 pounds of specialty fruit (tangerines and tangelos).
Oranges are Florida’s signature crop, accounting for 86 percent of the state’s citrus in 2014-15. Approximately 95 percent of the orange crop goes into juice, whereas the majority of grapefruit and specialty fruit are marketed for fresh consumption. Juice is produced in processing plants; fresh fruit is cleaned, sorted and packaged in packinghouses.
Being a Grower
Citrus growers need to understand numerous production practices or have access to someone who does. Major production issues include grove site selection, tree nutrition, pest and disease control, irrigation, pruning, weed control and replacement of dead or declining trees. Small growers often handle most production practices themselves or contract with a grove caretaking service to handle all or some of the tasks. Larger growers may hire knowledgeable production managers to supervise numerous workers. Some growers seek advice from consultants.
Freezes historically posed the greatest threat to Florida citrus. Temperatures below 28 degrees for four hours or longer may damage fruit; colder temperatures for longer durations may damage trees. Three freezes in the 1980s greatly reduced the amount of Florida citrus production and acreage. On freeze nights, growers typically run under-tree irrigation systems to raise the grove’s temperature by a few degrees and lower the risk of freeze damage.
But the greatest threat ever to Florida citrus – greening disease, or HLB – emerged in 2005. The bacterial disease, spread by the Asian citrus psyllid, has cut citrus production and acreage heavily. The University of Florida estimated HLB had a negative $7.8 billion impact over the eight years through 2014, or an average annual adverse impact of $975 million.
Florida citrus growers and the federal and Florida governments have committed scores of millions of dollars to HLB research. That research has helped growers better manage HLB, including through better methods of psyllid control, but the search for a “silver bullet” has remained elusive. Many believe the development of rootstocks that are tolerant of or resistant to HLB offers the best long-term solution, and several experimental rootstocks look promising. Heat treatments and bactericides to reduce HLB levels in trees are among other possible solutions being researched.
The value of citrus land is determined by numerous factors, including
- The value of fruit grown on the land (based in part on fruit variety, per-acre yield, fruit quality and whether the fruit is marketed as fresh or processed)
- Whether the current citrus crop is included in the land sale
- The age and condition of the trees and their rootstocks (the below-ground portion of the trees)
- Improvements to the land, including wells and irrigation systems
- The amount of water permitted for use by the governing water management district
- Proximity to a city (the closer to a city, the higher the land’s value because it could eventually become a residential or commercial development)
Citrus is celebrating five centuries in Florida; it was brought here by Spanish explorers in the 1500s and became a commercial crop in the 1700s.
Virtually all Florida citrus was consumed as fresh fruit until the 1920s when much of the fruit was converted to canned juice. The frozen concentrate was developed in the 1940s and was the primary form of citrus juice for decades. Now, much juice is sold as not from concentrate.
Interesting Florida Fact
Although most of the world refers to citrus plantings as orchards, Florida citrus growers call their plantings “groves.”