Inside Florida’s citrus groves, where growers are working to solve devastating disease and a climate-related shortage to save America’s oranges

Dan Richey by the orange tree.

Dan Richey, CEO of Riverfront Packing Company in Florida.Octavio Jones for Insider

  • Bottomless mimosas are getting more expensive, and so is feeding your kid fresh vitamin C.

  • Florida citrus has been hit by disease and climate-induced shortages, so prices have skyrocketed.

  • Growers are finding ways to fight the shortage and fight for the industry.

  • Check out all the stories in this pack here.

VERO BEACH, Fla. — Every two weeks, workers at Dan Richey’s Florida orange groves bathe the trees in clay.

The reason: The yield of Florida’s orange crop has declined — and prices have risen — as the Asian citrus fruit fly has invaded the peninsula, causing an untreatable disease that kills citrus plants once infected, known as citrus greening.

But as Richey said, the bugs can’t see the red clay in this Coca-Cola-funded pilot program, which makes the trees invisible to the pests.

“We have a food crisis that’s going to happen here,” said Richey, president and CEO of Riverfront Packing Company in central Florida.

Oranges take about 15 months to develop – they are often eaten in the same form as they are when taken from the tree. But they are also used to make juice, perfumes, scrubs and even cleaning products.

Over the past decade, citrus greening has cut the volume of oranges produced in Florida by more than half — and the price of orange juice has risen 13.8 percent since last year. (The disease has also been detected in citrus in California since 2012, where production of the fruit dropped 14% last year.)

That means Americans looking for fresh vitamin C, a bottomless mimosa or just a cold glass of orange juice will likely pay more in the coming years — but those in the industry believe demand will continue.

“Every time consumers take a bottle of juice off the supermarket shelf, they’re helping Florida’s struggling grower make it through so they can continue to provide it for generations to come,” said Matt Joyner, CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual. trade group representing more than 3,000 Florida growers.

Bottomless brunches are not immune

Thousands of miles up the east coast, Arthur Ringel is feeling the pinch. The chef and owner of DC Harvest, a restaurant in the US capital’s up-and-coming H Street Corridor, told Insider: “Prices are just through the roof everywhere because of the low amount of product in the market right now. “

Ringel, who prides himself on his farm-to-table menu, said he had to raise the bottomless mimosa menu prices by $2, to $28. His budget is strained by having to pay more for a smaller fruit that yields less juice, he said.

The price increases prompted him to switch to fruits and vegetables that are locally available “and happen to be less expensive for the restaurant,” Ringel said.

But Ringel said that even with increased menu prices, the demand for bottomless brunch is still there — and so are the health benefits of oranges. In the US, it is the most popular form of vitamin C consumption, which is important for immune system health and has come into particular focus during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Demand during the pandemic has been very good for any type of commodity that has vitamin C, and citrus fruits are one of the best ways to get vitamin C directly, either by eating the orange or through orange juice,” said Jennifer Schaal, the head. financial officer of the Dundee Citrus Growers Association, one of the largest fresh fruit cooperatives in Florida;

With the number of oranges produced in Florida cut in half over the past decade by disease and extreme weather, prices for the fresh fruit and juice have risen on grocery store shelves. However, Schaal said that “the demand hasn’t gone down, so it’s been really good for us to provide that vitamin C.”

Grapefruit from Dan Richey's citrus groves in Florida.

Grapefruit from Richey Citrus Groves in Florida.Octavio Jones for Insider

In Florida, citrus is still king — but it faces challenges

Citrus greening, four hurricanes in 2004 and another in 2017, and increased labor and production costs for things like fertilizer — the supply of which has been squeezed by Russian export bans — have made life for citrus growers every anything but easy.

“In a lot of areas where citrus is what people have done for generations, a lot of these communities depend on it, you know — the car dealerships and the coffee shops and all the things up and down the spine of Florida and across the country , ” Joyner said.

Citrus fruits remain vital to Florida’s economy.

“You think of Mickey Mouse, theme parks, beaches and all that,” Joyner said, “but the heart of this state is rural — it’s rural.”

TK stands in their orange groves in TK City, Florida.

Stephen Callaham and Jennifer Shall of the Dundee Citrus Growers Association.Octavio Jones for Insider

Orange production rose by 2 million boxes this year compared to April’s forecast of 40 million boxes, suggesting things are looking up. The US Department of Agriculture projected total citrus production for 2022 to be 6 million tons.

“Given everything this industry has been through in recent years, particularly with the weather, 40 million boxes of oranges is something to be proud of,” said Shannon Shepp, executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus.

This is despite the fact that production numbers are more than 100 million boxes less than the numbers of a decade ago.

“We’re nowhere near where we once were, but it’s clear that there are a huge number of dedicated people working together to figure out what recovery looks like,” he added.

Christian Spinosa, orange grower at Putnam Groves in Florida.

Christian Spinosa, orange grower at Putnam Groves in Florida.Octavio Jones for Insider

The stakes are high, but growers are adapting

Putnam Groves orange grower Christian Spinosa focuses exclusively on juice production in central Florida. He told Insider he had seen the cost of fertilizers “through the roof”. He said not a day went by that he didn’t receive an email about the price increases.

“I mean truck prices are going up,” Spinosa said. “It’s everything.”

But to make sure Americans can find their favorite juices on the shelf or in the restaurant, growers have come up with solutions to combat invasive insects and climate disasters beyond Richey’s clay spray. Steven Callaham, CEO of Dundee Citrus, pointed to his organization’s Citrus Under Protective Screen project in 2017, which uses tent-like structures to cover orange and grapefruit trees as they grow and seal them from invasive species.

A tractor in Richey's grove sprinkles white clay over orange trees to keep out invasive insects.

A tractor in Richey’s grove sprinkles white clay over orange trees to keep out invasive insects.Octavio Jones for Insider

“We’ve proven that at a commercial level, without greening, we have very healthy, very productive trees,” Callaham said. “We’ve gone a step further though — not just putting them under screens, but they’re high-density, more trees per acre. So we’re producing what we think will be four to five times more fruit per acre compared to traditional outdoor growing places”.

Richey agreed that these measures were working, but said the industry had a long way to go. But he doesn’t plan on giving up anytime soon.

“We’re not where we were. We’re probably not done going downhill yet, but we’re hitting the bottom and then we’re going to start crawling out,” Richey said. “New innovation and new research will allow us to stay in. There’s no giving up here.”

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