Florida residents and tourists, if you want to know what happened to the Florida citrus groves, then all you have to do is look around you. According to Washington Post and Bloomberg, Florida will have the smallest citrus crop since the Great Depression.
It’s not just this year, though. I’ve been an Indian River resident since the mid-1980s, and where there used to be acres of Indian River oranges, there are now rows and rows of cookie cutter houses that start in the $300,000s in subdivisions with cutesy names like “Hammock Groves” and “Vista Naranja”. As if there are views of oranges that go on forever.
The state that was once synonymous with abundant orange groves and the world’s finest citrus fruits is facing a crisis that’s raising questions about the future of this vital sector. It’s really no mystery as to what is behind the lack of oranges in not only my area, but in wide swatches across the state where orange trees bloomed sweet in the spring and smudge pots burned in the winter. Sometimes, the smell of burning orange peels permeated the air. It can’t all be blamed on the houses, but they are a byproduct of other factors.
The state no longer says anything about a day without an orange is a day without sunshine like they did in the 1970s.
The Sunshine State’s Citrus Legacy
For decades, Florida has been renowned as the Sunshine State and the epicenter of the American citrus industry. Its oranges have been prized for their unparalleled flavor, juiciness, and versatility. Florida’s citrus groves have not only shaped the state’s economy but have also played a significant role in the nation’s fruit production.
The Early Beginnings
The roots of Florida’s citrus industry can be traced back to the 16th century when Spanish explorers, including Ponce de León, introduced citrus trees to the region. He planted an orange grove in St. Augustine in the 1500s. Florida’s subtropical climate and fertile soil proved ideal for citrus cultivation, allowing these early settlers to establish the first groves.
The Rise of Commercial Citrus
It wasn’t until the late 19th century that citrus production in Florida began to take off on a commercial scale. The arrival of the railroad and advancements in transportation made it possible to distribute Florida’s citrus fruits to a wider market. This marked the beginning of what would become a thriving industry.
The Great Freeze of 1894-1895
Florida’s citrus industry faced its first major challenge with the devastating freeze of 1894-1895. The unusually cold winter temperatures wiped out many citrus groves and threatened the livelihood of countless citrus growers. Despite the setback, the resilience of Florida’s citrus industry prevailed, and growers replanted and adapted to the changing climate.
The Birth of Iconic Brands
The early 20th century saw the emergence of iconic citrus brands that are still celebrated today. Companies like Florida Citrus Exchange and Minute Maid helped shape the industry and bring Florida’s citrus products to a larger audience. These brands became synonymous with quality and taste.
Here are some of the iconic brands and groves you may recognize:
- Hale Groves – this is my local Florida citrus grove – see the blog post under recommended reading at the bottom
- Dundee Groves
- Florida Natural Growers
- Indian River Fruit
The Florida Citrus Commission
In 1935, the Florida Citrus Commission was established to promote and protect the state’s citrus industry. This organization has been instrumental in marketing Florida’s citrus products and ensuring their quality. Through advertising campaigns and rigorous quality control measures, the commission helped establish Florida as the premier source of citrus nationwide.
Florida’s citrus heritage has also been a draw for tourists. Visitors from around the world have flocked to the state to enjoy fresh-squeezed orange juice, and take part in citrus-themed festivals. The citrus industry is an important part of Florida’s tourism industry, attracting visitors with its sunny orchards and delicious offerings.
A Troubling Trend
However, over the past few years, a troubling trend has emerged: the declining production of oranges in Florida. There are many factors to consider that have contributed to this decline, which has opened up old groves to new homes.
Citrus Greening Disease Across Florida Citrus Groves
One of the most significant challenges facing Florida’s orange groves is the threat of citrus greening disease – Huanglongbing (HLB). This bacterial disease is spread by the Asian citrus psyllid. This insect feeds on citrus trees and transmits the disease from tree to tree.
Citrus greening disrupts the flow of nutrients within the tree, causing stunted growth, misshapen and bitter-tasting fruit. The tree ultimately dies. It has wreaked havoc on Florida’s citrus industry, leading to a significant reduction in orange production.
After back-to-back-to-back hurricanes in 2004 (it was a wild year), our beloved Honeybell tree tumbled over. It wasn’t long before our Navel orange tree started sprouting canker, which ultimately spread to our lemon tree. In all, we lost three productive citrus trees in less than a year. It was a loss for us, so I can only imagine how devastating it is to see your grove die.
Extreme Weather Events
Florida’s susceptibility to extreme weather events, such as hurricanes and freezes, has also taken a toll on orange production. These events can cause severe damage to citrus groves, resulting in loss of fruit and, in some cases, entire trees.
Hurricane Irma, which struck Florida in 2017, was particularly devastating to the citrus industry. The hurricane’s strong winds and heavy rains damaged countless orange groves, further exacerbating the decline in production.
In addition to natural challenges, economic pressures have played a role in the decrease in orange production. Rising production costs, including labor and pest control expenses, have made it harder for citrus growers to maintain profitable operations.
Furthermore, competition from other citrus-producing regions and alternative beverages has shifted consumer preferences, affecting the demand for Florida oranges.
The Search for Solutions
As the decline in Florida’s orange production continues, researchers, farmers, and policymakers are working to address the challenges facing the citrus industry. Several strategies are being explored to combat citrus greening disease, including the development of disease-resistant citrus varieties and enhanced pest management practices. Some growers are moving to alternative crops like blueberries, peaches, hemp, and the pongamia tree.
Efforts are also being made to mitigate the impact of extreme weather events through improved disaster preparedness and recovery plans. Additionally, initiatives to promote the consumption of Florida oranges and citrus products are being pursued to boost demand and support the industry.
The decline in Florida’s orange production is a multifaceted issue with roots in the challenges posed by citrus greening disease, extreme weather events, and economic pressures. While the situation may seem dire, the determination of Florida’s citrus industry to overcome these obstacles and find innovative solutions is inspiring.
The Sunshine State may never reach another citrus zenith as its known in the past, but we can all help by buying oranges, drinking orange juice, and keeping the Florida citrus groves alive.
Recommended Further Reading about the Future of Florida Citrus Groves
The following blog post came up during my search and since it’s about a grove that I do business with, I wanted to include it. Every year, my family gets oranges from Hale Groves.
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