Agri Leader

The new fight to save Florida orange juice

For more than five years, Florida’s citrus industry has fought an expensive and difficult war against the devastating and ongoing effects of greening - the virulent disease that destroys fruit and kills trees.

Now the industry is launching a new offensive to save the state’s orange juice from negative publicity, declining consumer demand and ever-increasing competition from trendier varieties of juice such as acai or pomegranate.

On June 11, Florida Department of Citrus (FDOC) unveiled an aggressive new campaign at a Bonita Springs meeting of the Florida Citrus Commission. FDOC announced a communications program that will include integrated public relations and retail marketing.

The announcement included a preview of new creative concepts, highlighted by a new “There’s AMAZING inside” tag line and “The AMAZING 6,” a standardized message platform designed to communicate the benefits of Florida orange juice and serve as the foundation of FDOC’s future marketing communications.

“The new branding will be executed domestically and also rolled out internationally,” said FDOC director of public relations David Steele. “The new campaign will feature a new digital platform, including websites and social media channels and will utilize celebrity spokespersons while also empowering loyal OJ fans as brand ambassadors.”

The new effort is badly needed, according to other industry leaders.

“This is definitely a very challenging time for Florida citrus,” said Andrew Meadows, director of communications for Florida Citrus Mutual.

The single biggest concern, he said, is a recent barrage of negative media reporting about orange juice.

“It is ridiculous that orange juice has become the boogeyman that’s supposedly making our

children obese and giving people diabetes,” Meadows said. “It’s gotten to the point where [the negative publicity] is out of control. And it’s frustrating to me. It’s frustrating to our growers. But it’s become a convenient sound bite for so-called nutrition experts to say orange juice is bad for you.”

And there is no doubt it has had negative impact on consumer demand and sales.

Doug Bournique, executive vice president of Indian River Citrus League, agreed that negative reporting has damaged the industry’s image and financial bottom line.

Meanwhile, Florida’s orange production has continued to decline, according to the latest numbers from USDA, which downgraded its estimate of 2014 production to 110 million boxes, an 18 percent drop from last year.

Total citrus acreage is down to just 50-60 percent of what it was at the industry’s peak a decade ago. And net production has been cut in half.

A related concern is that the infrastructure - the processing facilities and packing houses that actually bring orange juice to market - is also suffering. If production continues to decline, many growers worry that soon there will not be enough critical mass left to support the industry’s future recovery.

“But our processors and packing houses are hanging on,” Bournique said. “They’re running thin, but they’re also encouraging growers to plant new trees.”

At the same time, the costs growers face in fighting greening are “very high,” according to Meadows. “Growers that are producing are getting a good price for the fruit they can deliver,” he said. “But they’re spending a lot more on input costs for pesticides, fertilizer, and the other things that are being used to keep trees in some kind of semblance of good shape. And those costs are still going up.”

In 2005, before the greening crisis took hold across the state, typical production costs averaged about $500 per acre, Meadows said. Today, those costs reach as high as $2,000 per acre. “Large growers have a slight advantage when it comes to economies of scale,” Meadows said. “But all growers are facing much higher productions costs. And small growers have been hit the hardest.”

Growers who are replanting to replace diseased or dead trees are also facing much higher costs, which have skyrocketed from $1.10 per seedling to $10-12 because they must be produced in greenhouses to be safe from infection by greening, Bournique said.

He said Florida Citrus Mutual is now looking for creative ways to incentivize and possibly subsidize growers who replant.

“It’s a little premature to talk about that, but there has been some discussion about a tree assistance program,” Meadows said.

Ultimately, a massive citrus replanting with new varieties of greening-resistant trees will restore much of the lost acreage, industry leaders said. That is, in fact, the only realistic long-term solution to the problem.

“Once growers are confident the science has caught up to the disease, we will see a very large infusion of new trees because there is money to be made producing orange juice,” Bournique said.

In the meantime, the new campaign from Florida Department of Citrus aims to restore the Sunshine State’s orange juice to its rightful place as the king of breakfast beverages.