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July 18, 2018

Don Harden: A Look at the History of Citrus and Florida Limes

Florida limes are making a comeback in The Sunshine State.

Florida is well-known for its citrus production, and it used to be well-known for its lime fruit production, too. In my latest column in Central Florida Ag News, I explored the story of Florida limes, including how Florida citrus growers are giving Florida limes another shot. Limes were once so plentiful in South Florida that one of the varieties grown here was known as a Key lime because it was grown around the Florida Keys. Find out below what happened to Florida limes, and why the tart, green citrus fruit is again looking like a good crop for Florida citrus growers.

The Rise and Fall of Florida Limes

Lime fruit production had been on-going in Florida since the 1830s, mainly in South Florida, according to a USDA publication. However, cold weather and storms constantly affected the market and the production of Florida limes peaked in 1985 with 152 million pounds harvested. Then, in 1992, Hurricane Andrew decimated South Florida and in the mid-1990s, citrus canker reared its ugly head. To add insult to injury, the citrus leafminer showed up to spread citrus canker even faster.  Since the prescribed method of dealing with canker was to remove infected trees and those close by, the culmination of the three events spelled the demise of Florida’s lime industry.

This “perfect storm” of citrus canker and an insect pest came together with Hurricane Andrew to push limes out of Florida.

New Lime Fruit Production

It looks as if Florida limes are making a comeback in The Sunshine State, and growing demand will make it a valuable crop. Time has shown that citrus canker isn’t as bad as once thought, according to a Tampa Bay Times article—it certainly pales in comparison to citrus greening—and Florida growers have begun to plant limes again.

Limes are in demand, and don’t seem to be affected by citrus greening like oranges and grapefruit. So far, both the Key limes that were historically grown in Florida and hardier Persian limes have been free of citrus greening.

Lime tree plantings can’t mature fast enough for the current demand. It takes about seven years for a citrus tree to mature and produce fruit, all the while the demand for limes continues to increase. According to USDA data, the average per-person consumption of limes in the U.S. in 1990-1991 was .75 pounds a year, and by 2012-2013 it has increased to 2.96 pounds per person, per year. Experts believe that demand will only increase. Florida limes are in-demand for both the fresh and processed markets.

Florida lime growers’ have their biggest competition in Mexico, which produced 13 percent of the world’s lemons and limes in 2009-2012, according to the USDA publication. Recent data shows that Mexico has added more lime acreage, so Florida growers will need to beat their price points to stay competitive. With a little investment and good water and pest/disease management, limes could be growing all over Florida once again.

AgAmerica supports citrus production and Florida limes, in good times and bad. If you’d like to learn more about options for citrus grove loans for lime fruit or other citrus production, contact us today to discuss your options with one of our team members.

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