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As Citrus Lags, Florida May Need to Look to New Crops for the Future

Perhaps no crop and state have such an intimate relationship as Florida has with its beloved citrus groves. Even the license plates in the Sunshine State feature two bright oranges connected to a branch in the middle of the identifying numbers. Florida orange juice is an iconic grocery store staple that I drank daily growing up, all the way up here in New Jersey. This relationship helps define the state, and is also why it’s fighting so hard to push back citrus greening and keep it’s iconic industry afloat.

Last month, Florida State Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam said that the state’s citrus industry was “in a fight for it’s life.” Commissioner Putnam was lobbying for another $8.5 million to help fight the Asian citrus psyllid and the citrus greening disease it carries. The industry also faced problems stemming from increased development in traditional growing regions that decreased the amount of available agricultural land.

The request also followed a forecast report from USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service that estimated Florida’s all-orange production would drop 17%, reaching the lowest total in 52 years. This lowered production came amidst ideal citrus growing conditions between bloom in February and harvest. The area was also drought-free, raising even more concerns about the industry. If production would drop 17% in an ideal growing season, what would it look like if a drought or other weather conditions affected production?

To make matters worse, California navel orange production is up nearly 10% this year, according to early field reports and a forecast report from California Citrus Mutual. If realized, California’s crop would reach 86 million cartons, well above the 40 million-box navel orange forecast for Florida, representing a 19% drop from last year.

Clearly, these are trying times for the Florida citrus grower, and some are looking to take destiny into their own hands.

Florida is well-suited for olive groves, with a climate that is reminiscent of the Mediterranean, and although U.S. consumers go through 80 million gallons of olive oil a year, the largest market in the world besides Europe, we only produce 2% of it. Researchers have also found that blueberries, peaches and grapes also grow well in the state’s sandy soil, and could provide revenue to operations that are hurting under the citrus industry’s plight.

Clearly, it will take more than one bad season to change the state’s iconic relationship with citrus, but Florida farmers must be thinking ahead to ensure their livelihoods with alternative cash crops.