Citrus growers in Florida project 35% crop loss from Irma

Paul Ivice
Indian River Press Journal

INDIAN RIVER, FL - Hurricane Irma was not kind to Florida’s citrus crop.

The narrow, 200-mile-long strip of Florida’s eastern seaboard from Daytona Beach to West Palm Beach is the world’s best grapefruit-producing region. Three-fourths of Florida’s grapefruit is grown in the Indian River District.

“We might lose 35% of grapefruit and navels in the Indian River District, and maybe 12 to 15% of oranges,” said Tom Jerkins, president of Vero Beach-based Premier Citrus, which owns 20,000 acres of citrus groves in six counties, about one-third of those on the Treasure Coast.

Gov. Rick Scott spent his ninth "Let's Get To Work" day on May 2, 2012, in Fellsmere picking fruit at the IMG Citrus Phoenix grove. After picking fruit, he toured the IMG Citrus packinghouse in Vero Beach and met with members of the Indian River Citrus League to see the economic impact of Florida's citrus industry. All Aboard Florida and its affiliates spent nearly $200,000 to support Scott's "Let's Get to Work" program.

That is 35% less than a 2016-17 grapefruit harvest that was the smallest in at least 50 years because of the ravages of the greening disease that is now affecting grapefruit trees worse than oranges.

Jerkins, who has flown around his company’s groves across the state since the storm passed, said growers in central and west Florida will lose about 35% of their orange crop.

Jerkins’ estimate for his company’s groves is consistent with numbers provided by Garima Kakkar, Fort Pierce-based Fruit and Alternative Crops extension agent for the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, after she spoke with several growers.

Kakkar said “based on my conversations with growers in St. Lucie and Indian River counties” grapefruit droppage may already be 50%, with loss of navels around 25% and Valencias near 30%.

“That puts every grower on the East Coast in red ink” for this year, said Andy Taylor, senior vice president and chief financial officer for the world’s largest grapefruit processer, Vero Beach-based Peace River Citrus Products Inc.

 “Efforts to salvage some of that and get it processed into juice” is unlikely to save even 10% of the fruit dropped, Taylor said.

Mike Garavaglia, president of Packers of Indian River in Fort Pierce, said, “I don’t think it will be logistically possible to salvage any crop,” partly because much of the dropped fruit is sitting in water in flooded groves.

A worker sprays orange trees in a Treasure Coast grove.

“There will be more drop in the coming weeks as stems have weakened," about 20% or more, Kakkar said in an email. “Grapefruit is around two or three weeks from the start of harvesting. Most of the growers reported flooding as the main issue to tree health and some reported blown trees in the groves.”

About 80% of the Indian River District grapefruit crop is shipped fresh to Asian and European markets. There, it fetches relatively high prices. Most Florida oranges are commercially squeezed for juice and byproducts.

Hurricane-force winds also caused some long-term stress on citrus trees, Garavaglia said.

“What we learned from (2004 hurricanes) Jeanne and Frances is they (citrus trees) will be recovering for another year or two,” he said.

Flooding in the groves is the most immediate concern to growers.

When citrus trees are under water for more than 72 hours, root rot starts to set in, causing long-term damage to the trees, “and we’re precariously close to that,” said Dan Richey, president and CEO of Riverfront Packing Co. in Vero Beach.

Doug Bournique, executive vice president of the Indian River Citrus League, said he is working with the St. Johns and South Florida water management districts to alleviate the flooding by opening canals and reservoirs.

He said he also has received support from the region’s congressional delegation for his request to push for federal assistance for inundated growers.

Getting the water out of the groves is doable, but will be a struggle, Jerkins and Richey agree. Still, every citrus grower keeps a positive attitude.

“In the past few days, I’ve gotten calls from all over the world — from Japan to Paris,” Richey said. “The world wants this fruit, and if we have some, we will be shipping.”