Will orange production go the way of Cypress Gardens?

01/15/2014 05:00:00 AM
Vicky Boyd, editor

click image to zoomWhen I moved to Winter Haven, Fla., in the late 1980s, there was a move afoot by city commissioners to change the city logo that featured a woman, wearing a vintage 1950’s swimsuit, water skiing with a glass of orange juice in her hand.

The image was supposed to represent major activities in the region – water skiing on the Chain of Lakes and at Cypress Gardens and orange juice processing.

Fast forward several decades. Cypress Gardens is just a memory, having closed before being sold and eventually converted into Legoland Florida.

Today’s Winter Haven city logo consists of fancy type saying, “Winter Haven, the Chain of Lakes City.” Gone is any reference to orange juice. Is this a sign of things to come?

If you look at the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture crop estimate, things don’t look too bright. The latest report – Dec. 13 -- pegs the overall orange crop at 121 million 90-pound boxes. That’s down from the 125 million boxes USDA forecast at the beginning of the season in October.

If fruit drop is anything like it was during the 2012-13 season, that number will continue to shrink as the season progresses.

Although scientists haven’t pinpointed the cause of this unusually high fruit drop yet, many suspect that citrus greening -- also known as huanglongbing or HLB -- plays a role. They suspect that the bacterial disease has weakened trees to the point where they don’t have the energy or nutrients to support a full crop set.

Orange production peaked in the state in 1997-98 with 244 million boxes. It stayed in the 200-million-box-plus range -- outside of the free-damaged crop of 1998-99 -- until after 2003-04’s 242 million box orange crop.

From there, it’s been a steady decline. Orange acreage has paralleled production, with bearing acreage peaking at 612,600 acres in 1998-99. In 2012, the last year for which figures are available, the state had 433,400 bearing acres of oranges.

But you have to wonder. With this steady decline in production, how long can processors last before excess capacity affects their bottom lines to the point that they shut down? In many cases, bringing in offshore concentrate like they used to do isn’t an option anymore because of the not-from-concentrate trend.

On the bright side, the smaller crops have typically netted growers more per box in returns. But most of them are just plowing that money back in to pay for Asian citrus psyllid control and enhanced nutritional programs.

Although some producers are replanting orange groves, using high-density plantings and the latest production technologies, others are leaving former groveland fallow or seriously exploring other non-citrus crops.

And with economy picking up, will some of those former groves be replanted with houses? These are all tough questions that the industry and individual growers will continue to grapple with in the coming months and years.

Let’s hope that the absence of orange juice on Winter Haven’s city logo was just a marketing ploy and isn’t a harbinger of things to come.



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