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

Dan Richey at orange trees.

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

  • Bottomless mimosas are getting more expensive, as is feeding your child fresh vitamin C.

  • Citrus in Florida has been hit by a disease and lack of climate, so prices have increased.

  • Growers are coming up with ways to combat the shortage and fight for the industry.

  • See all the stories in this package here.

VERO BEACH, Fla. — Every other week, workers at Dan Richey’s Florida orange groves wash the trees in mud.

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

But as Richey said, insects can’t see the red clay in this pilot program funded by Coca-Cola, 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 grow – often consumed in the same form as when picked from the tree. But they are also used to make juice, fragrances, zest and even cleaning products.

Over the past decade, citrus greening has led to a decline in the volume of Florida-produced oranges by more than half — and a 13.8% price increase for orange juice since last year. (The disease has also been found in citrus trees in California since 2012, where production of the fruit has decreased by 14% in the past year.)

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

“Every time consumers grab a bottle of juice from the supermarket shelf, they help the struggling Florida grower overcome so they can continue to offer this for generations to come,” said Matt Joyner, CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual, a trade group that represents over 3,000 Florida growers.

Bottomless brunches are not immune

Thousands of miles up the east coast, Arthur Ringel feels pinched. The chef and owner of DC Harvest, a restaurant in the U.S. capital’s up-and-coming H Street Corridor, told Insider, “Prices are just through the roof across the board because of the low amount of product on the market right now.”

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

The price increases have pushed him to switch to fruits and vegetables that are locally available “and happen to cost less 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 that oranges provide. In the United States, they are the most popular form of vitamin C consumption, which is important for immune system health and has been a particular focus during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Demand through the pandemic has been very good for all types of items that have vitamin C, and citrus is one of the best ways to get vitamin C directly, either by eating the orange or through orange juice,” said Jennifer Schaal, the manager. finance officer of the Dundee Citrus Growers Association, one of the largest fresh fruit cooperatives in Florida.

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

Grapefruits from Dan Richey's citrus groves in Florida.

Grapefruit from Richey’s 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 — which have been strained by bans on Russian exports — have made life far from easy for citrus growers.

“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 auto shops and the cafe and all the things up and down the ridge in Florida and across the country,” Joyner said.

Citrus remains important to the Florida economy.

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

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

Steven Callaham and Jennifer Schaal of the Dundee Citrus Growers Association.Octavio Jones for Insider

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

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

This is despite the fact that the production figures are more than 100 million cans less than the figures from a decade earlier.

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

Christian Spinosa, orange grower at Putnam Groves in Florida.

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

The stakes are high, but growers are adapting

Christian Spinosa, an orange grower at Putnam Groves, focuses exclusively on juice production in Central Florida. He told Insider he had seen fertilizer costs “through the roof”. He said not a day went by without him receiving an email about price increases.

“I mean, truck rates are going up,” Spinosa said. “That’s it.”

But to ensure 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, in addition to Richey’s Clay Spray. Steven Callaham, CEO of Dundee Citrus, pointed to the Citrus Under Protective Screen project his organization implemented in 2017, which uses tent-like structures to cover orange and grapefruit trees as they grow and seal them from invasive species.

A tractor at Richey's grove spraying white clay over the orange trees to keep out invasive insects.

A tractor at Richey’s grove spraying white clay over the 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. “However, we’ve gone a step further – not just by putting them under screens, but they’re high density, more trees per acre. So we’re producing what we feel will be four to five times as much fruit per acre compared to traditional outdoor growth.”

Richey agreed that these measures were working, but said the industry had a long way to go. But he has no intention of giving up anytime soon.

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

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