In Florida’s citrus groves, where growers are working to solve devastating diseases and a climate-related shortage to save America’s oranges

In Florida’s citrus groves, where growers are working to solve devastating diseases and a climate-related shortage to save America’s oranges

Dan Richey from Orangenbaum.

Dan Richey, CEO of Riverfront Packing Company in Florida.Octavio Jones for insiders

  • Bottomless mimosa will be more expensive, as will feeding your child fresh vitamin C.

  • Florida citrus has been hit by a disease and climate-related shortage that has sent prices skyrocketing.

  • Growers are finding ways to combat the shortage and fight for the industry.

  • You can find all the stories in this pack here.

VERO BEACH, Fla. – Every two weeks, workers douse the trees with clay at Dan Richey’s orange groves in Florida.

The reason: Florida’s orange crop yield has declined — and prices have risen — as the Asian citrus flea invaded the peninsula, causing a disease with no cure that kills citrus plants once infected, known as citrus greening.

But as Richey said, beetles can’t see the red clay in this Coca-Cola-funded pilot program, which makes the trees invisible to the pests.

“We have a food crisis here that’s going to happen,” said Richey, the president and CEO of Central Florida’s Riverfront Packing Company.

Oranges take around 15 months to grow – they are often eaten in the same form they were plucked from the tree. But they are also used to make juices, fragrances, peels, and even cleaning products.

Over the past decade, citrus greening has caused the volume of oranges produced in Florida to drop by more than half — and a 13.8% increase in the price of orange juice since last year. (As of 2012, the disease has also been found in California citrus trees, where production of the fruit has declined 14% over the past year.)

That means Americans looking for fresh vitamin C, bottomless mimosas, or just a cold glass of orange juice are likely to pay more for years to come — but the industry believes demand will continue.

“Every time consumers pull a bottle of juice off the supermarket shelf, they’re helping the Florida grower who is struggling to keep it that way for generations to come,” said Matt Joyner, CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual, a trade group that sells via 3,000 growers in Florida.

Bottomless brunches are not immune

Thousands of kilometers up the East Coast, Arthur Ringel feels the crisis. The chef and owner of DC Harvest, a restaurant in the US capital’s burgeoning H Street Corridor, told Insider, “Prices have gone through the roof across the board because there are so few products on the market right now. “

Ringel, who prides himself on his “farm-to-table” menu, said he had to increase bottomless mimosa menu prices by $2 to $28. His budget is stretched by having to pay more for a smaller fruit that yields less juice, he said.

The price spikes have prompted him to switch to fruits and vegetables that are available locally, “and happen to cost the restaurant less,” Ringel said.

But Ringel said that even with menu prices rising, the demand for bottomless brunch is still there — and the same goes for the health benefits oranges offer. In the US, they are the most popular form of vitamin C consumption, which is important for immune system health and has been a particular focus during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Demand during the pandemic has been very good for any type of commodity that contains vitamin C, and citrus fruits are one of the best ways to get vitamin C directly, either from eating the orange or from orange juice,” said Jennifer Schaal, who Chief Financial Officer of the Dundee Citrus Growers Association, one of the largest fresh fruit cooperatives in Florida.

As the number of oranges produced in Florida has been halved in the past decade due to disease and extreme weather, the prices of fresh fruit and juice on grocery store shelves have soared. Still, Schaal said, “demand hasn’t dropped, so it’s been very good for us to provide this vitamin C.”

Grapefruit from Dan Richey's citrus groves in Florida.

Grapefruits from Richey’s citrus groves in Florida.Octavio Jones for insiders

In Florida, citrus still reigns supreme — but it faces challenges

Greening of citrus crops, four hurricanes in 2004 and another in 2017, plus increased labor and production costs for things like fertilizer — supplies of which are tight due to Russian export bans — have made life far from easy for citrus growers.

“In a lot of areas where citrus is what people have been doing for generations, a lot of these communities depend on it, you know — the car dealerships and the coffee shop and all things up and down in Florida and across the country,” he said Joner.

Citrus fruits remain essential to Florida’s economy.

“You think Mickey Mouse, theme parks, beaches and all that,” Joyner said, “but the heart of this state is rural — it’s agricultural.”

TK stands in their orange groves in TK Town, Florida.

Steven Callaham and Jennifer Schaal from the Dundee Citrus Growers Association.Octavio Jones for insiders

Orange production this year rose 2 million cases to 40 million cases compared to the April forecast, suggesting things are on the up. The US Department of Agriculture forecast total citrus production in 2022 of 6 million tons.

“Given what this industry has been through in recent years, especially with the weather, 40 million cases of oranges is something to be proud of,” said Shannon Shepp, executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus, in a statement.

And this despite the fact that the production figures were more than 100 million cartons behind the figures of ten years ago.

“We’re nowhere near where we used to be, but it’s clear that a large number of dedicated people are working together to explore what recovery looks like,” she added.

Christian Spinosa, orange grower in Putnam Groves, Florida.

Christian Spinosa, an orange grower in Putnam Groves, Florida.Octavio Jones for insiders

The stakes are high, but growers are adapting

Christian Spinosa, an orange grower at Putnam Groves, focuses solely on juice production in central Florida. He told Insider that he’s seen fertilizer costs “through the roof.” He said not a day had gone by that he hadn’t received an email about price increases.

“I mean, truck prices are going up,” Spinosa said. “It’s all.”

But to ensure Americans can find their favorite juices on the shelf or in the restaurant, in addition to Richey’s clay spray, breeders have developed solutions to ward off invasive insects and climate disasters. Dundee Citrus CEO Steven Callaham pointed to the Citrus Under Protective Screen project his organization implemented in 2017, which uses tent-like structures to cover orange and grapefruit trees as they grow and shield them from invasive species.

A tractor in Richey's Grove sprays white clay over the orange trees to keep invasive insects away.

A tractor in Richey’s Grove sprays white clay over the orange trees to keep invasive insects away.Octavio Jones for insiders

“We’ve proven that at a commercial level, without greening, we have very healthy, very productive trees,” Callaham said. “However, we took it a step further – not only did they put them under umbrellas, but they have high density, more trees per acre. So what we think we produce is four to five times as much fruit per acre compared to traditional outdoor growing.”

Richey agreed these measures are working, but said the industry still has a long way to go. But he doesn’t intend to give up anytime soon.

“We are not where we were. We’re probably not done with the incline yet, but we’ll hit the bottom and then we’ll start crawling out,” Richey said. “New innovations and new research will allow us to stay in. There is no giving up here.”

Read the original article on Business Insider

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