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New Forecast Shows Continuing Citrus Struggles

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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – Florida’s struggling citrus industry, already on a path for its worst growing season in decades, saw a slight dip in the latest forecast for orange and grapefruit harvests.

As growers continue to battle the devastating impacts of citrus greening disease, the downward projections in a January outlook released Thursday put the harvest closer to the forecast when the season started in October.

Mark Hudson of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Statistics Board, said the state’s postcard industry is now forecast to produce enough oranges to fill 71 million 90-pound boxes.

The number is down from an estimated 72 million boxes in both November and December, but remains above the initial season forecast of 70 million boxes.

Meanwhile, Hudson said grapefruit production is estimated at 9 million 90-pound boxes.

The number is down from a projected 9.1 million boxes in December and 9.6 million boxes when the season started. The state produced 10.8 million boxes worth of grapefruit in the 2015-2016 season.

Shannon Shepp, executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus, called the latest monthly numbers “the slight fluctuations this industry is accustomed to historically in a season.”

“We continue to see growers invest in the future of Florida citrus by putting new trees in the ground,” added Shepp, whose agency is partially funded by taxes that growers pay per box.

The department lowered the box tax last year at the request of large growers and Gov. Rick Scott.

The projected orange harvest for the 2016-2017 season is substantially below the 81.6 million boxes harvested during the 2015-2016 season.

Florida, which accounted for 49 percent of total U.S. citrus production in the past growing season, has been struggling for a decade against citrus greening, an incurable bacterial disease.

Throughout the decade before the disease was found, the state’s orange harvest annually topped 200 million boxes, with a high of 244 million boxes in the 1997-1998 season.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam has requested state lawmakers budget $8 million to battle citrus greening next fiscal year, the same as in the current year, along with $7.1 million for the Citrus Health Response Program and $2.5 million for the Citrus Inspection Trust Fund.

“Because of citrus greening, production of our state’s signature crop is down 70 percent from 20 years ago,” Putnam said in a prepared statement Thursday. “The future of Florida citrus, and the tens of thousands of jobs it supports, depends on a long-term solution in the fight against greening. Our brightest minds are working to find a solution, but until then, we must support our growers and provide them every tool available to combat this devastating disease.”

Rep. Ben Albritton, who chairs the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee, intends to meet with citrus researchers to “justify” what the industry needs in the next fiscal year to combat citrus greening.

“Citrus is part of the character, agriculture is part of the character of the state. It’s more than just economics, it’s part of the character of who we are,” the Wauchula Republican told members of the House Agriculture & Property Rights Subcommittee on Wednesday. “I want to make sure that agriculture has what it needs to survive, but at the same time I’m cognizant that we’re spending other people’s money.”

Albritton said he remains “encouraged” by the industry, where many are replanting to replace greening-impacted trees. However, he noted it takes newly planted trees several years to start producing, and his father is among those getting out of the business due to the disease.

“My dad walked in my office about a year ago and said ‘I’m done. I’m not fighting this anymore,’ ” Albritton said. “So my wife and I are buying his properties.”

“I don’t know if buying those groves makes me an idiot or not. I don’t know,” Albritton replied after Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, commended him for keeping the family farm active. “I don’t know if it’s smart or not. That’s kind of all I know how to do.”

The News Service of Florida’s Jim Turner contributed to this report.

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