Agri Leader

Florida ag connection to the Great Lime Shortage of 2014

Have you heard about the Great Lime Shortage of 2014?

Apparently, heavy rains in Mexico this past winter led to a fungus that has killed a large portion of the limes grown there this season. As the U.S. gets the vast majority of its limes from south of the border, the shortage has hit lime lovers in their pocketbooks.

The most common kind of limes we buy, called Persian limes, used to be about 25 cents each. Last week at my local supermarket, the price had more than doubled to 68 cents.

There were also news reports that the Great Lime Shortage and subsequent price increase may have connections to Mexico’s drug cartel, but I’ll leave that angle unexplored for now. The prices are expected to return to normal levels later this year.

Limes are a flavorful staple for many Latin and Asian dishes. And in my house, if you’re going to have a Corona, there will be salt on the rim of the bottle and a slice of lime served with it.

When I heard about the lime price increase due to fungus and rains in Mexico, I wondered if we could instead get our limes from here in Florida. After all, we grow so much produce here, and the state is a citrus powerhouse. Well that’s where my lime education began.

As it turns out, Florida once grew the majority of the limes bought here in the U.S., said Jonathan Crane, a professor and associate director of University of Florida’s Tropical Research & Education Center. The Florida lime industry was so organized by the 1960s, growers had banded together for research, marketing, and even quality standards. “They made sure the limes actually had juice and that they were of a certain size,” said Crane.

For a long time, Florida lime growers had little competition. In 1992, the green fruit prospered on 6,102 acres among 270 farms, with much of the acreage in Miami-Dade County, said Erin Gillespie, press secretary for the state’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Then, Hurricane Andrew in 1992 cut the lime acreage in the Miami-Dade area in half, said Crane. The 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement opened the door for limes from Mexico to enter the market. The lime industry rebuilt for the most part after the hurricane, but citrus canker disease was first detected in limes in 1995. The disease reached limes in Homestead five years later. By October 2000, 85 to 90 percent of the lime acreage was burned due to citrus canker, said Crane.

“Just as the industry was beginning to recover, the canker outbreak caused the destruction of nearly all of the lime trees in Florida,” Gillespie said.

That had some long-ranging tough economic impacts that affected pickers, farmers and even ancillary businesses like fertilizer suppliers, said Crane.

Of course, farmers are ever resourceful, and they used the former lime land for nurseries and to grow other fruits and vegetables.

Florida may still have an ideal climate for lime growing, but Crane doesn’t see commercial lime business returning here. The 2012 Census of Agriculture released this month reported that only 40 farms in the state grow limes on a total of 229 acres. The limes that are grown here are usually sold to local consumers, not commercially, said Crane.

Once I found out those facts, I turned my attention to key limes, which are associated with the state’s ubiquitous key lime pie. Key limes are smaller, have more seeds, and are more tart than Persian limes. I haven’t traveled in the Keys much yet, and I’ve had images of key lime trees dotting the landscape. Once again, my research busted that myth. The Keys once grew key limes in abundance, but now most of our key limes come from Mexico. In fact, Mexicans actually use key limes in their cuisine more often than Persian limes; in that country, key limes are called Mexican limes, said Crane.