Florida's citrus harvest is the lowest it's been in decades

The final forecast of the 2016-2017 season for Florida's struggling citrus industry shows the orange crop falling 16 percent from the previous season —- which, itself, had been at a five-decades low.

And after a season of severe drought, combined with the continued fight against a deadly citrus disease and the expansion of residential development, the news wasn't any better for grapefruit farming, where production dropped 28 percent from the prior year.

Agriculture Commissioner and gubernatorial candidate Adam Putnam, who grew up on a farm in Polk County, expressed a need to keep fighting the disease citrus greening, which he equated to being “like a biblical plague” spreading across the state's groves.

“The future of Florida citrus, and the tens of thousands of jobs it supports, is wholly dependent on the discovery of a silver bullet in the fight against greening,” Putnam said in a prepared statement. “Florida's brightest minds are making progress toward a solution, but until then, we must continue to support our growers and provide them every tool available to combat this devastating disease.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported Wednesday, in the final forecast for the 2016-2017 season, that Florida growers have harvested enough oranges to fill 68.7 million 90-pound boxes.

The figure is up slightly from a June forecast, but down from the 70 million boxes growers were originally predicted to fill this season.

The monthly uptick was the focus of the Florida Department of Citrus.

“Ending the season on a positive note is a big deal because it shows there is still investment in Florida's signature crop,” Shannon Shepp, executive director of the Department of Citrus, said in a prepared statement. “It takes quite serious effort to produce every single piece of fruit. Every additional box shows promise for Florida citrus.”

Growers produced 81.6 million boxes of oranges in the 2015-2016 season.

Meanwhile, growers during the 2016-2017 season filled 7.8 million 90-pound boxes with grapefruit, the red variety accounting for 6.3 million boxes.

While unchanged from the June forecast, grapefruit production a year ago stood at 10.8 million boxes, and this year's harvest was initially forecast to reach 9.6 million boxes.

A relative bright spot for citrus growers this year was the production of tangerines and tangelos.

The specialty crop, which hit a low of 1.415 million boxes last season, filled 1.62 million boxes this past season. The forecast at the start of the season was for tangerines and tangelos to fill 1.65 million boxes.

A decade ago, Florida growers produced 151 million boxes of oranges, 19.3 million boxes of grapefruit and 6.9 million boxes with tangerines and tangelos.

At that time, Florida accounted for almost three-fourths of all U.S. orange production. California was second filling 53 million boxes, or 25.7 percent.

Florida now accounts for 58 percent of the U.S. orange production. California remains second with 48 million boxes filled this year, or 40.65 percent of the total.

To brace for the continuing declines, the Florida Department of Citrus has approved a preliminary $17.5 million operating budget that would feature a 22 percent spending cut.

The proposed budget, based on growers producing another 10 percent less next season, won't be finalized until October when the first 2017-2018 forecast is available.

To help growers, the department is proposing that a tax on each box filled with grapefruit would drop from 7 cents to 5 cents.

A year ago, the tax was lowered from 23 cents to 7 cents on each box of processed oranges and from 19 cents for each box of grapefruit.

The spending reductions during the 2017-2018 fiscal year would come mostly by eliminating retail-marketing efforts, which stood at $1.5 million in the current year, a $1.43 million cut to public relations and a nearly $1 million decrease to the fresh and gift fruit program.