The early end to Florida’s citrus season this year marks an especially challenging time for the region’s growers. Florida’s agriculture industry still struggles in the wake of 2017’s Hurricane Irma– with $2.5 billion in losses, including more than $760 million from the citrus industry.
But even more problematic for the state is the combination of citrus greening and declining orange juice consumption. Just as citrus producers had to cope with the devastating microbial disease before the storm, they must confront it again season after season. Citrus greening is one of the most serious crop diseases in the world. Once a tree is infected, there is no cure and most die within a few years. In the meantime, between 2001–02 and 2016–17, the retail U.S. orange juice market has declined by 50 percent.
Due to all of these challenges, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s most recent Florida citrus crop forecast is 50,000 boxes down from the April estimate and 9 million down from the 54 million boxes predicted at the start of the season. That’s a decline of more than 80 percent since the peak of citrus production during 1997-98.
To help support distressed growers, Congress passed a spending bill earlier this year that included more than $2.3 billion for agricultural assistance in Florida. Still, the relief package does not solve the crisis of greening or lack of consumer interest. A solution that does address both greening and lack of O.J. consumption is for growers to diversify their agricultural output, but each new crop comes with its own set of unique challenges.
Speaking of pongamia’s potential to fill this economic void, our Chief Agriculture Officer and veteran citrus grower Peter McClure recently told the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, “[w]e had 800,000 acres of citrus when greening came in. You can’t grow 800,000 acres of blueberries, peaches or pomegranates because the market isn’t big enough. With pongamia’s biological fit in Florida and the existing huge markets available for oil and protein, you can scale up and grow 100,000 to 200,000 acres or more without breaking the market.”
“Being in citrus where we have fought hard for 10 years […], said Peter, “we’re fighting a losing battle where we’re having to lay off people, I see a crop that will provide jobs for those same people.”
Read the full interview between Peter and Florida’s Fruit and Vegetable Association: http://www.southeastfarmpress.com/fruit/grower-champions-sturdy-replacement-crop-embattled-florida-citrus