Is Florida running out of orange juice? Record prices put the squeeze on consumers
Has breakfast in the US ever been this expensive? The recent eggflation seen across the country has caused an uproar, and now orange juice is adding to the financial pain.
Orange juice futures – contracts to buy and sell OJ – have almost doubled to $2.60 per pound over the last year, up from $1.40 a year ago, leading to price surges in stores. In January, orange juice not from concentrate hit $10 a gallon, while juice from concentrate hit $6.27 per gallon.
The increase has not gone unnoticed. “This is my favorite,” a TikTok user in a grocery store says as he holds up a glistening 89-fluid-ounce orange juice bottle in a video posted last month. “Simply Orange juice: $7. That’s simply too high.”
The price increase highlights a serious problem for Florida – the state that is synonymous with the orange and produces the most orange juice in the country.
This season the US agriculture department predicts the state will produce 16m 90lb boxes of oranges, a 61% drop compared with last season when the state produced 41m boxes. It’s a worrying decrease but nothing compared with the fall from its peak in the 1990s when the state was producing 200m boxes a year.
“While the current crop size is a real disappointment, we’re not giving up,” Matt Joyner, CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual, a trade association, said in a statement on Wednesday.
Florida’s woes have opened up an opportunity for Brazil, the world’s largest exporter of orange juice. Orange juice shipments from that country were up 58% in the first four months of this season as Florida oranges saw a small yield.
Over the last decade the state has ramped up efforts to protect its industry, which is vulnerable to extreme weather events like hurricanes and has been experiencing a pandemic of its own through a prolific citrus disease.
The citrus industry was once the dominant industry in the state, a role that now belongs to tourism, but the citrus industry still covers 375,000 acres (151,757 hectares) in the state and supports over 32,000 jobs, bringing in economic contributions of about $6.6bn (£5.48bn), according to the University of Florida.
“It’s farm income, but it’s also the income that comes from the communities that are served by the industry,” said Marisa Zansler, director of economic and market research for the Florida department of citrus. “There’s a lot of economic contribution in agricultural areas of Florida that aren’t necessarily served by tourism.”
Hurricane Ian tore through central Florida – home to many of the state’s citrus groves – in September as a category 4 storm, wreaking havoc on the state’s citrus farms. The University of Florida estimates the damage to the state’s agricultural sector was $1.07bn (£890m), with citrus growers bearing $247m (£205m) in damages. In early February, a bipartisan from Florida’s congressional delegation introduced a bill that would give US Department of Agriculture (USDA) grants to farmers to help them recover from the damages.
Along with the stress from Hurricane Ian, the orange industry has been dealing with a pandemic of citrus greening among its groves for over a decade.
The disease is spread by an insect, the Asian citrus psyllid, that feeds on the stems and leaves of trees and then infects them with bacteria. The disease was first found in the state in 2005, and by 2015, it was found in all citrus-producing counties, according to the state’s department of citrus. Growers said in 2015 that as much as 90% of their trees were infected.
Greening hurts the tree’s circulation and nutrition status, leading it to produce green, smaller, misshapen fruit that tastes bitter. An infected tree can die five years after infection. The bugs can be carried across the state by heavy winds, making hurricanes even more devastating to the crop.
The state has invested millions into researching and developing treatments for citrus greening over the years, and efforts to replant old and infected trees have been under way. This year, the state is looking to allocate $29m (£24m) for protection and research in the citrus industry, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
“We’ve just had pressure from both sides of the spectrum, from weather-related events as well as dealing with [greening],” Zansler said. “The industry is working toward resolving a lot of these challenges and replanting, and it’s going to take some time.”
While solutions to citrus greening are still being explored, growers in the state are experimenting with nutritional supplements to help make trees stronger in the face of greening and trunk injections that help the trees fight the disease’s bacteria. Researchers have also been working on developing modified citrus trees that are resistant to the disease.
Even with the one-two punch of weather and disease Florida’s orange trees have been taking, growers are still optimistic about the future of the industry as they see these efforts to fight the disease start to bear fruit – literally.
“I’ve grown up in this industry … I remember groves years ago and what they look like, and what groves look like now and what the fruit looks like. This year, before the hurricane, we were on a good track,” said Emma Keller, executive director of the Peace River Valley Citrus Growers Association. “Despite everything that happens and what they get hit with, [growers] keep pushing, because they truly love this industry and what they do. They are a super-resilient group.”