Americans love oranges and orange juice, but they may soon see their love tested by the rising cost of citrus.
Growers in Florida and the U.S. Department of Agriculture warned of a particularly low crop yield this year caused by inclement weather and a disease targeting oranges. The situation has grown so bad, in fact, that some worry it could be one of the worst seasons since World War II.
The situation is a tough one for Florida farmers. After taking a nosedive for more than a decade, demand for orange juice rose over the past two years. However, the estimated supply of oranges for processing is at or close to a record low.
"We have the overarching issue of disease coupled with just a low fruit set and extremely high fruit drop prior to harvest that is generally weather related," said Larry Black, vice president and general manager of Peace River Packing Company, an orange grove farm in Fort Meade, Florida.
The main culprit is the disease huanglongbing, also known as HLB or citrus greening, that has found a foothold in Florida orange groves. Infected trees bear fruit that are smaller, higher in acidity and lower in sugar, which has even caused Florida farmers to advocate for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to lower its sugar content standards for juice.
NBC News reported in 2018 on the effect that HLB had on Florida orange groves, which was exacerbated by Hurricane Irma. The disease has persisted in the ensuing years and has further decimated orange crops during the economic turbulence seen throughout the pandemic.
While the low citrus yield is unrelated to the pandemic, the spread of the coronavirus has also caused the cost of labor, transportation, fertilizer, seeds and other key agriculture inputs to rise.
"Consumers are realizing the value of orange juice and are making that purchase, so Florida citrus growers need to continue to fight," Mike Sparks, executive vice president and CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual, said. "We've got to address high production costs, labor issues and imports, but first things first, we got to take care of our trees."
The situation for California orange growers is quite a bit different. Though HLB has not spread as widely on the West Coast, the disease has made its way into the state's citrus supply.
Farmers, however, are contending with a glut of oranges they can't move due to the country's beleaguered supply chain.
Emily Ayala, an owner and vice president of Friend's Ranches Inc. in Ojai, California, said farmers in her area had to dump about 10 percent of their oranges that they could not bring to market because of supply chain issues.
"It broke our heart," she said. "We literally were dumping fruit onto the ground that was perfectly good to eat because we couldn't find the transportation and labor to move it."
Unfortunately, California's oranges can't make up for Florida's losses. California oranges have thicker rinds that are suitable for eating and culinary uses, while Florida's oranges are very juicy with thin rinds that are great for juicing. Farmers from the states face two different sets of challenges.
"A lot of people don't realize but there are two parallel supply chains for oranges in the U.S.," said Richard Volpe, a food retail and supply chain management professor at the California Polytechnic State University College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences.
Volpe said the effects of both situations will undoubtedly cause the cost of orange juice and oranges to rise, though he didn't expect it to be by much. Retailers are scrambling to try to keep prices low to keep consumers shopping, he said, and it helps to consider those prices in a historical context.
"When it comes to food, and this is especially true for fruits and vegetables, prices are lower today than they were 20, 30, 40 or 50 years ago," Volpe said. "Despite the fact that we're seeing sharp inflation, in terms of food becoming unaffordable or scarce, these are not concerns that people should be having right now. We're going to see these prices come back down in both nominal and real terms."
For the Florida orange industry, however, it may be more than a few years until things get back to normal and farmers get past this disease.
"We will not get it back in a year. We won't get it back in five years," Sparks said. "We've got to get HLB-resistant trees in the ground, and they take three to four years to bear fruit. We're probably talking a decade to really get back on the path, and probably a bit more than that."