EXETER, Calif. — The further devastation of Florida’s citrus industry by Hurricane Irma might increase prices for California fruit that’s diverted to juice, but its overall impact will be minimal, an industry insider says.
That’s because the prices that growers in the Golden State receive for their fresh oranges, lemons and other citrus are already much higher than those paid for fruit headed to the juicer, said Bob Blakely, vice president of California Citrus Mutual.
Fresh citrus nets the grower between $17 and $20 for each 40-pound carton, while oranges diverted to juice get about $185 a ton, which equates to about $3.70 for 40 pounds, Blakely said.
“The juice price is doing better than it used to,” he said. “We used to say if we could get back our picking and hauling costs, we’ve done well.”
In a given year, 10 to 20 percent of navels, Valencias and other citrus fruit from California groves is deemed unfit for the fresh market because of blemishes and set aside for juice, which enables the grower to recoup at least some return for rejected fruit.
But Florida’s industry is centered on juice, as its climate is conducive to high sugar content and high quality juice fruit that California couldn’t match, Blakely said.
Hurricane Irma earlier this month caused major tree damage including uprooted trees across the middle of Florida and in its southwest corner, where some growers lost nearly all their fruit, according to industry officials.
The devastation from the deadly tree disease huanglongbing has already caused Florida to fall behind California in total citrus production for the first time in decades. Florida’s 454,973 citrus acres is the lowest since at least 1966, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
Florida’s citrus production in 2016-17 was 78.1 million 90-pound boxes, down 17 percent from the previous season’s 94.3 million boxes, NASS reported. With harvests there set to begin in November, yields promise to be much lighter than the industry had expected.
“It’s just unfortunate,” Blakely said. “They already had a short crop because of HLB, then they get this hurricane. I’m hearing reports that ... 40 percent of the entire crop was lost to the hurricane.”
The futures market for juice has gone up, continuing a trend of higher juice prices over the last several years amid shorter supplies in Florida, Blakely said. But Florida’s woes won’t prompt more California growers to begin juicing, nor will it likely entice Florida producers or processors to come West, he said.
“Our regulatory costs and costs of production are just too high,” he said. “We’re a fresh market industry and that’s not going to affect our growers’ decision-making at all. There are different countries that will supply that juice before California does.
“What we’re probably going to see is more imported orange juice before we see any other juice produced in the United States,” he said.