How a Hurricane Might Have Been the Last Straw for Orange Juice

Photo by Ashim D'Silva on Unsplash

Florida may be approaching its peak juicing orange harvest season, but nearly all of the state's growers are still coming to terms with the devastation caused by the September 2017 landfall of Hurricane Irma. The storm, which landed on Florida's southwest coast as a powerful Category 3 hurricane, shook oranges off of branches, knocked trees over and flooded groves for days, causing root damage and killing even more trees. Orange growers were hit with a fruit loss of almost 60 percent according to a survey conducted by the state's main orange trade group, Florida Citrus Mutual. Closer to landfall, some of the trade group's members reported 100 percent losses.

Normally when a natural disaster causes extensive damage to a particular crop, a combination of insurance and continued consumer demand helps producers to eventually get back on their feet. Unfortunately for Florida orange growers who were struggling even before hurricane season, Hurricane Irma may prove to be the last straw.

Falling In and Out of Love with Orange Juice

If you take a look at the oranges you buy at the store you'll most likely see a California label. Florida may feature oranges on its license plate - it does produce more oranges than any other state, after all - but it would be far more accurate to show a glass of orange juice. Nearly 90 percentof Florida's citrus is processed into juice. But while orange juice is the most popular "fruit" that Americans consume, the popularity of the long-time staple found in American refrigerators is falling fast.

The American love affair with orange juice began after World War II, when scientists figured out how to create juice from concentrate. Business boomed, and by the 1990s the industry pushed its "not from concentrate" juice to even greater popularity. At its height in 1998, annual orange juice consumption was 5.7 gallons per person. Fast forward to 2015 and that number had plummeted to 2.9 gallons, the lowest in USDA's records dating back to 1970. The reasons are threefold: increasing prices, more Americans skipping breakfast (and the juice that accompanies it) and concerns over consuming too much sugar, of which fruit juice has plenty.

Citrus Greening Disease

But it's not just dropping sales that are hurting the Florida orange industry. For over a decade growers have also been struggling with "citrus greening," a disease which weakens and eventually kills infected trees. About 80 percent of Florida's citrus trees are affected by the disease, which is spread by tiny flying insects, and since its introduction in 2005 it has cost the orange and grapefruit industry over $4.6 billion in revenue and 3,400 jobs. There is no cure for trees once they are infected, and researchers are trying everything from employing large screened enclosures to creating new orange varieties with gene-editing technology to withstand the disease. Ultimately, though, the disease may take such a high toll on growers that some may have to forego oranges and switch to other large-scale crops like artichokes, blackberries, hops, olives, peaches and pomegranate.

Plummeting Production and Disaster Relief

The combination of disease and declining sales has caused orange production in Florida to plummet from its peak of 244 million boxes in the 1997-1998 season to just 69 million in 2016-2017. Now because of Hurricane Irma's devastating blow, the USDA's December 2017 forecast estimated that number to drop to just 46 million boxes for the 2017-2018 season, the least since 1945. Wall Street has taken note of the reduced estimates as orange juice futures closed lower for a record 15 straight days in late December. The impact has also been felt by seasonal workers, mostly immigrants, who pick the state's oranges. South Florida's Coalition for Immokalee Workers reported that thousands of laborers were already out of work as of the early harvest season in October. Consumers are of course impacted by the drop in Florida orange production by rising juice prices, which can then lower demand even further.

One might think that federal crop insurance would kick in to help citrus farmers, as it often does for commodity crops like corn and soy damaged by natural disasters. But because they grow a specialty crop, orange producers can expect insurance to cover only a fraction of losses. Florida officials are asking for assistance from the federal government, and the state's congressional delegation is hoping to attach funding for citrus growers to a $44 billion disaster relief package designed to aid recovery efforts from 2017's hurricane season. For now, the aid has been pulled into the larger budget fight in the Senate. 

A Future for Organic Orange Juice?

Before the concentrate version was popularized in the late 1940s, orange juice was considered a luxury, and that's likely what it will become again. Purely from a public health perspective, this may not be a bad thing since orange juice contains nearly as much sugar as soda (31.25 grams of sugar in 12 ounces of juice versus 39 grams of sugar in 12 ounces of Coca Cola).

From an organic grower's perspective, there could be opportunity in this shift as consumers see orange juice as an occasional purchase, not an everyday staple that has to be worked into tight family budgets. According to the 2016 USDA Organic Survey, Florida has only 537 harvested acres of organically grown oranges, a blip when compared to the 367,500 acres overall for orange production. California's organic orange industry, while larger, is still a relatively small 5,000 acres of the 155,000 acres statewide for orange production.

To be sure, organic orange growers in Florida have been struggling with the same problems faced by conventional growers. For example, Organic Valley discontinued their Florida orange juice products due to supply issues, and because of a 40 percent reduction in their organic Florida orange crop, Uncle Matt's Organic has had to supplement their juice with organic oranges from Mexico.

After Hurricane Irma's landfall, Florida's orange industry is facing a dire situation. As the state's iconic industry transitions through a painful reduction, consumers who are willing to spend a little more money for organic oranges and juice can support small, family farmers looking to use sustainable strategies to address the persistent problems facing all citrus growers.