As the first USDA Citrus Crop Estimate makes its way through the news feeds, Patrick Spinosa discusses what it means for the citrus industry.

In my latest column in Central Florida Ag News (CFAN), I discussed how rootstocks, federal disaster relief, and land loans are key in the comeback the Florida citrus industry may see with the 2018-19 harvest. This month, we heard the first USDA Citrus Crop Estimate, predicting whether the Florida citrus farming industry will rebound from its worst season since World War II. The first citrus production forecast was released on October 11th and the numbers do not disappoint. The USDA predicts the Florida citrus fruit crop will see 79 million boxes before the close of the season next July.

This is significant, considering Florida only produced 44.95 million boxes of oranges last year, a year in which Hurricane Irma devastated citrus farms throughout the state. Irma caused up to a 70 percent loss of fruit crop in some places and an estimated $760 million in damages.

But the hurricane is just one of many challenges that affected last year’s harvest. The fight against citrus greening disease (also known as HLB), which has plagued the Florida citrus industry for 13 years, is still ongoing.

Fortunately, there have been some recent research projects and tools developed that are aiding in the fight against HLB and other diseases in citrus groves.

Research and Advancements in the Citrus Industry

Florida citrus growers wasted no time getting back out in the fields after Hurricane Irma, but with so much devastation and loss on top of the ever-present disease and pest challenges, many asked themselves whether or not to reset their groves. For those choosing to reset, there are a few options on the market to aid in efforts to plant and maintain healthy groves.

An exciting scientific advancement in rootstocks, nine years in the making, has shown certain rootstocks when grafted with SugarBelle®—a mandarin hybrid—to be more tolerant of HLB than most commercially grown citrus in Florida.

The rootstock experiment was conducted by University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) at the in Lake Alfred, Florida and published in the journal “Plant Signaling & Behavior”. Results showed variation in the metabolic activity in three groups of healthy Sugar Belle® trees that used the three most popular rootstocks. Chemical profiles varied significantly depending on the rootstock used, and Sugar Belle trees when grown on Swingle citrumelo seemed most likely to tolerate HLB, the study concluded. This combination produced the greatest amounts of two acids that would limit bacterial population in an HLB-infected tree.

Two additional advancements in the Florida citrus industry are the Citrus Under Protective Screens (C.U.P.S.) program and the Tree Defender. Both of these are designed to protect your citrus trees after planting. The key feature of the C.U.P.S. program and Tree Defender is that your trees are shielded from the citrus psyllid which causes the citrus greening disease, as well as other diseases and pests. The industry looks to these protective measures to keep trees healthy until they reach maturity and can contribute a good fruit crop to the citrus production forecast.

Other Signs the Florida Citrus Industry is Making a Comeback

While it is likely the number of boxes predicted in the citrus production forecast indicates a comeback, not all growers take this prediction as assurance the industry is back. There is more good news indicating a resurgence in the citrus industry, however. Andrew Meadows from Florida Citrus Mutual, a grower’s group in Lakeland, said there has been a significant uptick in the planting of citrus trees in Florida. On how the numbers will play out, he added, the crop will be larger. How large? He, like many of us in the citrus industry, is “cautiously optimistic.”

Another important factor in the comeback of the citrus industry in Florida will be receipt of federal disaster relief. Congress passed a bill in February 2018 that allocated $2.36 billion in agricultural assistance to be paid by the USDA Farm Service Agency. Citrus growers can apply until November 16, 2018 for this relief that will cover up to 50 percent of their fruit crop loss. This relief package in conjunction with advancements made in rootstock and other citrus industry technology may be just the ticket to a full comeback of the iconic Florida citrus industry.

If you’re in need of financial solutions to aid in the planting of these more tolerant citrus rootstock varieties, planting citrus resets, or diversification of your agribusiness, our team here at AgAmerica Lending can help.