Ask a random person to name a few things that identify Florida and you'll probably get answers like beaches, old people, and orange juice. After all, orange juice is our official state beverage and oranges decorate our default license plates — but it turns out that the state's OJ industry is in a historic decline.
In fact, this season's crop is expected to be the smallest in 52 years. According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture forecast, the state is expected to collect just 80 million boxes of oranges this year. Each box weights 90 pounds. That's down from 96.8 million boxes last season, and the lowest crop since 1964.
Orange production in the state has slowly fallen since its heyday in the late '90s. The largest crop ever collected was back in the 1997-98 season when 244 million boxes of oranges were collected.
"This initial citrus crop estimate confirms that Florida's citrus industry is in a fight for its life," said Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam in a statement. "The health of Florida citrus is important to every Floridian, not just those who depend on it for their livelihoods."
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So what's driving the decline?
Well, a disease known as citrus greening is currently ravaging the state's crop. After first popping up in the state in 2005, the bug-carried disease, which as the name would suggest turns citrus green, has continued to spread across the state. It's estimated that since 2007, the disease alone is responsible for about $3.7 billion worth of damage. There's also no known cure for the disease, and research on how to combat it has been slow.
Putnam has asked the legislature for $18.7 million to fund research and try to fight the disease. Which is a relatively small drop in the bucket to try and save an industry that even still is estimated to be worth $10.7 billion and provides 64,000 jobs.
“We are in a challenging time right now with severe disease pressure, but Florida growers continue to be the best producers in the world,” Michael Sparks, executive vice president and CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual, in a press release. “The key going forward is to keep existing trees productive and get new trees in the ground so we can rebuild our production base while maintaining the current infrastructure.”