November 30, 2023

The decline of the Florida Orange: Why orange juice is so expensive these days

Mary Apel

Florida’s iconic orange groves are facing a historic citrus crop decline, which is expected to result in pricier and less sweet orange juice in the coming months. The state’s orange trees have been ravaged by hurricane winds and a devastating epidemic of disease, exacerbating the 20-year downward trend in citrus production. As Florida has traditionally been the primary source of domestic juice oranges, a smaller crop will further squeeze the quality and supply of oranges available. The current dismal harvest is anticipated to drive up the already expensive orange juice prices, which have increased by 17.5 percent since the beginning of 2022, according to data from Nielsen analytics.

Moreover, the poor harvest is also expected to impact the taste of fresh juice. The widespread infection of greening disease, causing oranges to turn green and develop a bitter flavor, has affected nearly all of Florida’s groves. Even ripe oranges from infected trees have become smaller and less juicy. Analysts predict that juice prices will remain high in the coming months. To compensate for the shortage, U.S. manufacturers typically import additional oranges from Brazil. However, Brazil is also experiencing a shortage due to heavy rains that have caused citrus trees to rot.

Young orange trees in Sebring, FL

Judy Ganes, the head of commodities research firm J. Ganes Consulting, foresees high prices and decreased demand as consumers may be unable to afford expensive orange juice and may find the altered taste less appealing. She describes Florida’s orange supply as being in a “race to zero.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture has forecasted that Florida will produce 18 million boxes of citrus this season, including 15.75 million boxes of oranges. This is the smallest harvest since 1928, when Mediterranean fruit flies infested citrus trees, leading to widespread concern.

During the 1990s and early 2000s, Florida boasted a thriving citrus industry, regularly producing over 250 million boxes of citrus fruit. The state marketed its juice as “liquid gold,” contributing to a $6.9 billion industry, as estimated by University of Florida economists. However, citrus production has steadily declined since the mid-2000s, with this year posing even greater challenges.

Florida growers faced adverse weather conditions during the fall, with Hurricanes Ian and Nicole damaging trees at the beginning of the citrus season, which runs from September to June. Additionally, a December cold snap threatened to freeze the groves, although cloud cover ultimately saved the fruit trees. Nonetheless, the weather conditions negatively impacted harvests.

In addition to these temporary challenges, farmers are grappling with the long-term threat of greening disease, which arrived in Florida in 1998 and continues to infect more groves each year. The Florida Department of Citrus estimates that 80 percent of citrus trees in Florida are infected with Huanglongbing, the bacteria that causes citrus greening, which ruins a tree’s fruit. Largely because of the disease, the state’s orange crop during the 2020-2021 season (52.8 million boxes) was just over a third of what it was a decade prior (140.5 million boxes). Projections for a decade from now range from as high as 54.4 million boxes to as few as 37 million.

Matt Joyner, CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual, expressed hope that federal disaster aid will help alleviate the costs of hurricane damage, with the U.S. House already approving block grants for citrus growers in a bill introduced by Florida Rep. C. Scott Franklin, which is now being considered by the Senate.

Even if conditions improve, each difficult harvest further erodes Florida’s citrus business and drives prices higher. The declining yield has led many processors to downsize their operations, resulting in the closure of approximately two-thirds of the state’s processors between 2006 and 2016. Marty McKenna, a third-generation grower, expressed concerns about the future of the industry’s infrastructure once the greening disease is overcome. In response to these challenges, some Florida farmers are considering transitioning from oranges to alternative crops like hemp, a change that has been advocated by former state agriculture commissioner Nikki Fried. Meanwhile, scientists at the University of Florida are working on developing citrus trees that can tolerate or resist greening disease.

Darin Newsom, senior market analyst for the financial data service Barchart, believes that citrus supplies won’t increase anytime soon, raising doubts about whether consumer enthusiasm for the product will remain the same. In the meantime, consumers may need to adjust to higher prices for orange juice or consider alternatives to Florida oranges. Cranberry Juice Cocktail, anyone?

Check out these fun facts about our favorite fruit:

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