A summer survey by Florida Citrus Mutual (flcitrusmutual.com), the state’s largest growers’ association, shows producers desire to increase grove acreage. Some 40 percent of respondents plan to do more business with nurseries supplying young trees.

Based on his interactions with the citrus industry, Bob Norberg, deputy executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus, isn’t surprised.

Norberg, an economist, says growers are expressing optimism despite daunting issues with disease, problems with the economy, and a continuing recovery from a series of hurricanes.

In 2004 and 2005, four major hurricanes rampaged through the Florida citrus belt at full strength, causing significant short-term and long-term damage to the industry. Not only were the immediate crops impacted (in the neighborhood of 30 percent to 35 percent reduction in expected yields), but there was also long-term damage to trees: leaves blown off, scaffolding and limbs torn up, and root systems waterlogged and harmed due to too much water in the groves.

The hurricanes “also allowed the spread of two diseases that we’re dealing with to this day,” says Norberg. “One, citrus canker, affects the appearance of the fruit.” (More at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citrus_canker)

There are countries and states that will not allow the import of fruit with citrus canker lesions on the skin. “That obviously limits the market potential of the fruit,” says Norberg.

Growers combat citrus canker bacteria with a copper spray. But such spraying “isn’t sustainable for a long period of time, since the material builds up in the soil.”

The second disease that was spread by hurricanes is Huanglongbing, or HLB (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huanglongbing), more commonly known as “citrus greening. The disease involves a bacteria that gets into the vascular system of a citrus tree, clogs up nutrient byways and, eventually, the tree dies.”

No known cure

There is no known cure for citrus greening and Norberg says any citrus industry around the world that has ever had a significant battle with citrus greening is no longer in business.

Several years ago, Florida implemented a disease research program and enlisted the help of “the best plant scientists, bacteria scientists and anyone else who could add their expertise. We’re beginning to see a bit of fruit from that research and growers are becoming a bit more confident that we’ll eventually be able to deal with HLB.”

For more on research efforts, see here. http://southeastfarmpress.com/orchard-crops/senator-nelson-reaffirms-backing-citrus-research

“We’ll likely never be without HLB. However, we’ll find ways to mitigate its damage to the trees and fruit.”

All of that means that in today’s environment “we have a much smaller (citrus) crop than we did prior to 2004. Retail prices have reflected this by moving up. Consumption (of citrus products) has gone down as prices have gone up. Prices are about 35 percent higher than they were in 2005.

“But that means pretty good fruit prices for growers. That has made them more confident today that they can plant new trees and regain market share over time even at higher prices.”

The industry is “pretty optimistic. We’re looking at a bigger crop in the coming season – maybe up 5 percent, or so, of a gain in crop size. We haven’t seen that in the last few years. Prices are expected to be fairly good, although they probably won’t be as good as they were last year.”

For more on the recovery of Florida’s citrus industry, see here. http://southeastfarmpress.com/orchard-crops/florida-citrus-mutual-leader-upbeat-future-industry

Among Norberg’s other comments:

On establishing new groves…

“A fruit variety is budded onto root stock and that’s grown in a nursery for between one and two years. Usually when a grower gets a nursery tree it’s already two years old.

“Then, it takes another three years before the tree will produce a crop – albeit a small crop – worth harvesting. The general rule of thumb is it takes five to six years before you reach the break-even cost of planting that tree.

“Under normal circumstances, a citrus tree will continue to grow and produce for 20 to 30 years. Under the new HLB environment we’re wondering how long the trees will typically last. But usually, six years after planting a tree, you can expect to reap the benefits for another 20 years.”

On the possibility of rising planted acres…

“The USDA actually just released a report on this – a citrus tree inventory. That indicates that net planting (plantings minus losses) has declined even up to this year.

“However, planting intentions seem to be higher. We hear from a lot of growers that they’d like to plant more trees. They’re hoping the nurseries will grow more trees for them. And nurserymen are now expanding their production.”

Labor issues

On labor issues in the citrus industry…

“The Florida citrus industry depends on migrant labor to harvest crops. We really need to have a strong immigrant workforce available.”

On Isaac and 2012 weather…

“We weren’t impacted by Isaac. But there’s been a significant amount of rainfall in the northern tier of the citrus belt. The southern tier hasn’t gotten as much rain but it seems there is adequate water supply even there.

“Weather has been pretty kind to our citrus industry so far this year.”

On orange juice…

“Although we’re the largest grower of grapefruit in the world (and export about 50 percent of the crop) oranges produced for juice makes up the vast majority of Florida citrus.

“That means we’re reliant on consumers continuing to drink orange juice. The demand for Florida orange juice is still sizable. However, it’s lower than it was pre-hurricanes.

“Part of that is the balance of supply to demand. Because we’re not producing as much juice as we were seven years ago, we can’t sell as much.”

On the impact of the citrus industry on the state’s economy…

“The latest valuations we’ve done show that citrus production in Florida has a $9 billion economic impact on the state. It provides, directly and indirectly, about 78,000 jobs.

“So, it’s a major economic driver as the biggest agricultural commodity grown in the state. And, behind tourism, agriculture is the second-largest industry in Florida.

“We want to stress that Florida growers are regaining confidence that we can overcome the HLB disease -- something that no other citrus has been able to survive. And we’re going to eventually rebuild to pre-hurricane levels and provide U.S. consumers with great-tasting orange juice and grapefruit that they’ve come to enjoy and love.”