Mother Nature can be cruel. Fifteen years ago, citrus canker—a contagious bacterial disease—began plaguing Florida’s orange and grapefruit crop. Then 10 years ago, citrus greening—a bacteria spread by an invasive insect from Southeast Asia —began wiping out trees in the Sunshine State. In September 2017, Hurricane Irma arrived.
The storm made landfall in Southwest Florida and churned north, devastating groves along the way. The hurricane knocked over trees, blew fruit off branches and left behind huge quantities of standing water, which, after three or four days of stagnation, can kill a citrus tree. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services estimated Irma’s damage to the citrus industry at more than $760 million. Growers harvested just under 45 million boxes of oranges and almost 4 million boxes of grapefruit during the 2017-2018 growing season. The year before, the industry had produced 68.7 million boxes of oranges and 7.8 million boxes of grapefruit.
“We mark our history with weather events, and Irma is going to be another notch,” says Andrew Meadows, director of communications for Florida Citrus Mutual, a trade organization that represents 3,000 growers. “But I think we have a good crop this year. Growers are doing all they can to manage citrus greening and produce quality fruit.” The most recent estimate for the current season suggests production should reach 77 million boxes of oranges and 6.4 million boxes of grapefruit.
The impact of greening and storms doesn’t just hurt large-scale growers. It also affects backyard growers, who often lack the scientific chops and resources of grove owners. Meadows says large-scale orange and grapefruit growers have a variety of tools they can use to combat greening, from using slow-release fertilizers to better nourish trees to using heartier root stocks that are better able to withstand greening. People just hoping to put some backyard grapefruit on the table may not have access to those methods.
“There aren’t any hobbyists or gentlemen farmers these days,” says Meadows. “There’s been a lot of consolidation over the last decade, and the people left in the industry are the best in the world at what they do.”
The era of picking an orange for breakfast off the tree in your yard may be over, but nectarines, mangoes, lychees, guava, limes and other fruits are still successful grow-it-yourself options. Given the longtime cultural identification of endless orange groves and bountiful sunshine with Florida, that’s a sad transition. Blame Mother Nature.