The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s allowing Florida shippers to send fruit to other citrus-producing states came at a good time.

Doug Ohlemeier
Eastern Editor

Florida grower-shippers said they are looking forward to getting into the newly opened markets and renewing supply relationships.

Shippers say they had already started receiving customer calls from California and Texas for their fruit when the USDA released the rule Oct. 21.

“We are very excited to have another market to go to on all varieties, but especially the tangerines,” one told me.

Because of fears of the rampant spread of the citrus canker disease to other growing regions, the USDA quarantined the peninsula and restricted shippers from sending fruit to other producing regions.

One thing that was surprising about the unexpected rule change was how competing growing areas didn’t vehemently oppose the change.

Of the 34 comments the agency received, 11 expressed opposition.

Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, Exeter, said he and his group and Texas citrus leaders worked closely with Florida’s industry on the issue as well as getting needed money to fight the citrus psyllid, which spreads the devastating citrus greening disease.

“The science was developed (on canker spread),” he said. “The studies came back fairly comprehensively that there was very minimal or limited moving risk associated with moving fresh fruit with canker into California. Based on that, we didn’t even comment.”

So when does he get his first box of Florida grapefruit?

After USDA officials in a conference call explained the draft rule to leaders of the citrus states, Nelsen jokingly said Mike Sparks, executive vice president and chief executive officer of Lakeland-based Florida Citrus Mutual, promised to send him a box of Florida grapefruit.

Citrus canker is spreading rapidly though in a moderate infection, shippers say.

The annual USDA report on Florida grove abandonment demonstrates how much canker and other factors have changed the growing landscape for Florida citrus.

The USDA in late September reported growers abandoned 140,089 acres this past year. The Indian River district, which saw a loss of 51,926 acres, is the leader in forsaken groves, though all growing districts saw losses.

Growers said grapefruit accounts for the majority of abandonments.

“That is very shocking,” said Matt Kastensmidt, national sales manager for IMG Citrus Inc., Vero Beach, Fla. “I knew there was more abandoning happening, but I didn’t know that it was to that scale.” 

While fewer acres will translate to shippers packing fewer boxes and thus possibly spur higher grower returns, the desertion of so many acres can cause the industry other problems.

The USDA defines abandoned groves as acreage that hasn’t been commercially harvested during the last two seasons, groves that have no production care, weed control or grass mowing.

If those orchards aren’t managed properly, Kastensmidt says the neglected groves jeopardize neighboring producing groves by becoming breeding grounds for psyllids and canker disease.

The timing of the rule change was also favorable because the key sales period for the Florida citrus deal is September through December.

Packinghouses need to ship as much as they can during that window as intensive retail promotions begin in November, a salesman for a large growing group told me.

As up to 55% of the state’s fresh citrus volume is sold during the last quarter, shippers have to make their sales while they can.

The reopening of California — which is a consumer market unto itself — could help take the edge off of what growers have to ship to the rest of the country and give them more of a firm footing for their sales.

E-mail dohlemeier@thepacker.com

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