Orange juice prices rise as Florida citrus farmers struggle to survive

Citrus farmers continue to fight greening
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Posted at 5:29 AM, Feb 11, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-11 07:34:23-05

BARTOW, Fla. — Deep in the heart of Florida, across State Road 60 and down 17, a war approaches two decades. It’s a fight between generational farmers and every outside force below and above the soil to keep Florida oranges on trees and in your homes.

Citrus Famer Christian Spinosa and his family know the fight well.

I've been working on our family citrus and beef cattle operation out of Bartow, Florida. I'm a fifth-generation citrus and beef cattle producer,” Spinosa said.

Spinosa owns Putnam Grove, a thousand acres of the more than 400,000 acreages of citrus groves in the state, and sells most of his oranges to Florida’s Natural orange juice.

It's changed a lot over the years. If it hasn't been for freezes or canker or stasia and now citrus greening is what we're currently facing,” he explained.

Citrus greening has been a Florida farmer’s plague since 2005. It’s caused by disease-infected insects that stop nutrients and sour the fruit.

RELATED: After troubling new forecast, Florida citrus advocate says industry is 'at a crossroads'

This, coupled with a recent freeze in Florida, is frightening news for orange production.

In 2022, the USDA predicts the sunshine state will produce the smallest batch of oranges since WWII, at 43.5 million boxes.

The sad reality is, Florida Citrus Mutual estimates citrus acreage in the state is about half of what it was 20 years ago, with 60% of growers leaving the industry in the last five years.

When you sell your land for 20, $30,000 an acre and it's a business decision. It's not a demand decision. It's a business decision,” said Steve Johnson, owner of Johnson Harvesting.

Johnson’s family has owned their citrus grove in Wauchula since the 1930s. For him, selling isn’t an option.

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Florida's — it's very important that citrus stays alive. It roughly, there's 33,000 jobs that are involved in citrus, there's about $6.7 billion in economic impact. So the citrus industry plays a huge role in the economy,” Johnson explained.

These oranges aren’t just going to local grocery stores, Florida groves supply about 95% of the entire country’s orange juice.

One of the beauty parts behind the pandemic was the demand for orange juice went up because it's a great quality product. It's got vitamin C and it's a healthy product,” Johnson said.

A recent Nielsen report reveals orange juice sales are the highest they’ve been in years, but as we know, supply and demand affect prices.

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In the last year, orange juice prices went up more than 25%, according to Insider Market, and they are expected to continue rising.

However, these farmers say paying the premium is the only way to help keep their crops alive.

I hope that everybody goes home and buys a gallon of orange juice every week,” Johnson said. “We'll make that happen some way, somehow. If it's planting more trees, if it's figuring out a new variety, if it's figuring out a new root-stock, that's what we'll have to do.”

Florida farmers are constantly trying to figure out how to adapt to greening and keep trees healthy.

Johnson Harvesting has increased inputs into their soil by 200% in past years. that’s things like mowing, plowing and watering more, especially adding more fertilizer.

They say within the first year of greening, you lose 30% of your roots. So we've had to change our focus and how we do things and what we're doing and we've had to pull more soil samples, more leaf analysis to make sure that we're putting the right thing in the right place,” Johnson said.

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Right now, 23% of Florida citrus acreage is non-bearing, according to Florida Citrus Mutual. That means farmers are actively trying to plant new trees for future harvests. They say this is hope for greater supply in the future.

“It's so important to make sure that our next generation and that my children that they know that their food just doesn't come from Publix. You can't go to the grocery store and buy food that it's, it's grown on a tree, it’s grown on a farm,” Spinosa concluded.

If you want to help these farmers in this fight, be intentional when shopping. Look for Florida-grown oranges or really any orange juice that’s refrigerated.