Unless one is completely fatalistic about the Florida juice orange industry, establishing commercially viable mechanical harvesting systems remains an important goal. Citrus greening, while a key factor in the recent demise of mechanized harvest, is also the number one reason why the Florida juice industry needs mechanical harvesting.
Citrus Research and Education Center citrus economist Ron Muraro documented a 125 percent, or $1,000 per acre, increase in production costs since greening took hold in 2006. Yes, in recent years, growers of juice oranges have been enjoying historically high fruit prices, but the uncertainty of whether these prices will hold into the distant future should drive growers and juice processors to develop new technologies that reduce production costs.
Mechanical harvesting remains the one area where the largest reduction in costs could occur.
Resolving the issues surrounding the abscission compound, CMNP, and carrying it through the Environmental Protection Agency registration process may allow existing equipment to operate with negligible tree damage.
UF agricultural engineers Reza Ehsani and Tom Burks are making progress to develop fruit pick-up machines, over-the-row harvesters and beater rods that lessen structural damage to the trees.
New equipment designs with or without CMNP could still revive mechanical harvesting and bring significant financial benefits to Florida citrus growers.
Dr. Fritz Roka is an associate professor and economist in the Food and Resource Economics Department based at the Southwest Florida Research and Education Center. He can be reached at email@example.com.