Citrus industry seeks to maintain funding, eyes research
Despite a predicted drop in citrus production across Florida, orange juice sales are tracking up and the industry wants lawmakers to maintain current amounts of state marketing and research funding next fiscal year.
Meanwhile, efforts to combat citrus greening disease, which for nearly two decades has devastated groves, could soon lead to a new University of Florida-backed variety of citrus on the market.
Michael Rogers, director and professor at the University of Florida IFAS Citrus Research & Education Center, said among new varieties that are more tolerant to citrus greening --- technically called huanglongbing, or HLB --- is a “Gator Bites” brand.
The bites look similar to the California clementines commonly known by the brand names cuties or halos. However, Rogers said the Florida variety has a sweeter taste without an increase in sugar content.
“This makes the cuties and halos taste like cardboard, in my opinion,” Rogers told members of the Senate Agriculture Commission. “It's an easy peeler. Seedless. It doesn't get your hands messy. Tastes very sweet and it's HLB tolerant. So, this is going to be our first opportunity in Florida for growers to diversify a little bit if they've not been planting fresh fruit.”
While citrus greening has been a leading cause in the decline of the industry, Florida growers have struggled for years against residential and commercial development, foreign imports and changing drinking habits.
Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture forecast a nearly 11 percent drop in orange production and a 7.3 percent reduction in grapefruit production during the 2021-2022 growing season from last year. Harvest totals would be among the smallest since the 1940s.
Rogers said he’s “optimistic” about the future of the state’s citrus industry, which in 2005 faced predictions that it wouldn’t survive the next 10 years because of devastation from citrus greening.
In the fight against diseases, the university is using gene editing techniques to develop grapefruit plants resistant to citrus canker. Also, it has wrapped up a study on a growth hormone, gibberellic acid, that has shown signs of reversing signs of stress suffered by trees with citrus greening, Rogers said.
Noting the research efforts, Florida Citrus Commission Executive Director Shannon Shepp, after addressing members of the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee on Wednesday, said the agency has requested $17 million in “base” funding for next fiscal year, the same as in the current year.
“There are folks still reinvesting in citrus and planting in citrus because they have seen the technology and the nutritional info that we've been able to garner over these last few years,” Shepp told the House panel.
In her presentation, Shepp said money is being used to continue a marketing campaign that started just before the COVID-19 pandemic, promoting the health aspects of orange juice as “The Original Wellness Drink.”
“Our goal is to increase consumer demand and purchase of Florida citrus products, predominantly Florida orange juice,” Shepp said. “We are a $6.7 billion economic driver that supports 33,000 jobs, directly and indirectly.”
The marketing campaign was designed, in part, to counter concerns by health advocates of sugar content in citrus.
Orange juice sales increased as people stayed at home in the early stages of the pandemic. And recently, there has been another increase in orange juice sales, Shepp said.
“We are gradually gaining some of that momentum that was created in the COVID spike,” Shepp said.