SEBRING — Citrus projections have come back up, somewhat, to the numbers they had two years ago.

“We’re relatively pleased with the crop of earlies,” Highlands County Citrus Growers Association Executive Director Ray Royce said Friday in anticipation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s February crop prediction that afternoon, which had some good news.

The USDA prediction holds steady from the January prediction at 77 million boxes of oranges — 32 million boxes of non-Valencia and 45 million boxes of Valencia — and 1 million boxes of tangerines and tangelos.

Grapefruit came down to 6 million in February — 5 million red and 1 million white — which is 3 percent less than the 6.2 million prediction in January.

January numbers weren’t released that month because of the federal government shutdown.

Harvest for the 2016-17 growing season was 33 million boxes of non-Valencia oranges, 35.85 million of Valencia, 6.28 million of red grapefruit, 1.48 million of white grapefruit and 1.62 million of tangerines and tangelos.

After Hurricane Irma hit that following September, the 2017-18 harvest dropped to 18.95 million boxes of non-Valencia oranges, 26 million boxes of Valencia, 3.18 million of red grapefruit, 700,000 of white grapefruit and 750,000 of tangerines and tangelo — the smallest harvest on record since immediately after World War II.

Royce expected the USDA to bump up the numbers a little bit this year, but the numbers were good, “for the greening era,” he said.

“It’s not as good as before greening,” Royce said.

The disease has decimated the industry in the last 20 years, but it’s not the first time the crop saw problems.

Citrus cultivation had been in Florida 400 years, thanks to Spanish explorers, but took off after the Civil War. By 1917, oranges were the state’s most valuable food crop, followed by field corn and grapefruit, according to CitrusIndustry.net.

Recognizing a need for scientific methods to help the crop, Florida legislators authorized creation of an off-campus University of Florida research facility, dubbed the Citrus Experiment Station (CES). CitrusIndustry.net reports growers had raised money for it by summer 1919 and UF secured an 84-acre tract just north of Lake Alfred, with 14.5 acres of established groves.

It took a little more than 50 years after that — the 1971-72 growing season — for Florida’s citrus production to top 200 million boxes for the first time, states CitrusIndustry.net. However, the industry was contending then with diseases and freezes, as much as now.

Grapefruit had also barely survived Hurricane Donna in 1960, and a Mediterranean fruit fly outbreak hit all citrus in 1962.

Freezes hit in the late 1970s and several times in the 1980s, but it was the return of citrus canker — it had first hit from 1912 to 1933 — and the introduction in the early 2000s of citrus greening that has plagued the industry most recently.

Two years ago, National Public Radio reported researchers in Lake Alfred — now a 600-acre campus — believed they had made headway against greening by developing tougher varieties of citrus.

The USDA will make crop estimate reports again on the following dates:

  • March 8, 2019
  • April 9, 2019
  • May 10, 2019
  • June 11, 2019
  • July 11, 2019
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