Florida's Citrus Industry Struggles After Irma

Aftermath of Hurricane Irma
Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News

Florida’s citrus crop is being counted as a major casualty of September’s Hurricane Irma, with some predicting the harvest could drop to levels not seen for more than 75 years. And that is having an impact beyond growers to hurt bulk shipping, hauling, warehousing, harvesting and other services.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture in November cut its harvest estimate for the crop to 55.6 million 90-pound boxes. Some haulers believe the crop could come in considerably lower.

“After Irma hit we estimated 50 million boxes. Now we are estimating closer to 40 million,” said Adam Pate, president of Statewide Harvest & Hauling, a Dundee-based harvester and carrier. “Irma was a horrific event.”

The last time Florida saw a citrus crop under 41 million boxes was the growing season of 1938-1939.

Pate’s firm hires pickers to gather the fruit and fill its 15 trucks to transport the crop to juice plants or packing houses. While he said it’s too soon to gauge Irma’s effect on his company, so far, they are managing. “We haven’t reduced our management or shop staff but it’s a moving target. Every day we see more fruit drop,” he said. Pate noted that he pays his drivers on an hourly basis, so a smaller crop will translate to a lower paycheck.

Irma also devastated the grapefruit crop usually hauled by Citrus Transport, said Jose Alanis, president of the Ft. Pierce-based carrier, which has 25 trucks. In a typical year the firm hauls 5,000 to 6,000 refrigerated containers from packing houses to ports in Jacksonville and Florida’s west coast for export.

“This year we want to do 2,000. If we get 2,000 we survive,” said Alanis.

Irma delivered winds up to 185 miles per hour to the prime growing areas of west and central Florida, dumping 17 inches of rain in one 24-hour period, and forcing unharvested fruit to the ground, the Agriculture Department reported.

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services estimated that Irma would have a $2.5 billion impact on the state’s citrus industry, which, in addition to oranges and grapefruit, includes tangerines and tangelos.

Irma’s powerful slam joins a list of body blows to Florida citrus over the last 20 years. In addition to the always unpredictable hurricanes, a big wallop came in the last decade from two bacteria known as greening and canker that have hurt oranges globally. And total acreage in citrus territory dropped after some farmers decided to sell out when land values rose a few years ago.

The biggest challenge may be changing consumer tastes. Americans have turned away from fruit juices with heavy sugar content to water and other beverages. Orange juice consumption in the United States dropped 48% from over five gallons per capita in the 1990s to less than three gallons last year, the USDA reported.

In response, some carriers have diversified into crops like strawberries, blueberries and peaches, said Florida Trucking Association President Ken Armstrong.

Pate has diversified with strawberries, but has found the crop isn’t very efficient. It takes a lot more workers to fill a trailer with strawberries than oranges, he said, and at the end of the day you only have one load to transport.

For Alanis, the best you can do is accept the present and look to the future.

“How do you cope? You cope,” said Alanis. “We usually rebound. We’re optimistic next year will be good.”