SEBRING How bad is this year’s citrus crop?
“The fruit drop this season is the worst that anyone can remember for a long period of time – that wasn’t related to a freeze event,” said Raymond Royce, executive director of Highlands County Citrus Growers Association.
The problem, he said, is definitely greening, perhaps exacerbated by erratic weather.
“A lot of trees put on a lot of fruit last spring,” Royce said. While one season’s fruit is still ripening, citrus trees bloom and add a second crop to be harvested in a year.
In the past year, he said, “We’ve had almost weird weather patterns and weird temperature fluctuations.”
On Tuesday at Avon Park, Citrus Research and Education Center scientists told more than 300 statewide growers that fruit drop has been unprecedented this season, perhaps averaging 30 percent of the crop.
One University of Florida scientist estimated 18 million boxes of oranges and grapefruit have already fallen, an income loss of $138 million. Valencias, which are harvested through June, may be even worse.
“I’ve heard from some growers whose groves did very well,” said Royce, who suggested that the countywide fruit drop has averaged 20 percent. “And I heard from others that said they’ve lost 40 to 45 percent. There are a wide range of experiences.”
Like Royce, the scientists blamed greening, a bacteria that causes bitter fruit and eventually kills the tree. When the tree is already suffering, the damage from other weather and pests becomes too great.
Greening is caused by psyllids, mosquito-like insects that feed on leaves and infect the tree. Their bacteria travel through the tree sap, killing leaves, limbs and roots.
“It compromises their immune systems,” Royce said. “And any other stress that is put on them then gets exaggerated.” As trees sicken, they drop fruit to remain alive.
Greening affects oranges, grapefruit and tangerines, but it affects some citrus varieties more than others. In the case of oranges, Royce said, “What we saw the same in the Earlys, we are now seeing in Valencias.”
In response, growers are hiring as many pickers as possible, Royce said. Since there is a shortage of domestic labor, the advantage this season is going to farms with H-2A crews.
“They’re trying to get as many people in and get everything picked before they hit the ground,” Royce said. “If it falls off the tree today, it may still be useful. If it fell off a month ago, it’s not.”
Royce is not an economist and didn’t want to predict prices, but he didn’t think one bad season would affect grocery stores in the short term.
“There is still a good supply of juice” in the juice factories, Royce said.
As for growers, some will fail to make a profit this year, others will lose money.
“There’s no doubt about it,” Royce said. “The vast majority will be impacted negatively.”
The big question now is whether the 2012-13 crop is one bad season.
“Is this the new norm,” Royce asked, “or is this an odd year?”