Hurricane Irma plundered Florida’s orange belt, leaving a trail of uprooted trees, downed fruit and flooded groves worse than anything growers say they have seen in more than 20 years.
It could even be the knockout blow for a product — orange juice — that has been slipping in popularity among Americans, although the beverage still ranks as the country’s favorite fruit.
The most recent estimates of the widespread damage to Florida’s orange trees put the statewide losses as high as 70 percent. That could lead to orange shortages, price hikes and, for farmers, lost harvests — all on top of a debilitating plant disease called citrus greening and a long-term national decline in orange juice consumption.
“Significant is not the right word,” said Shannon Shepp, the executive director of the growers’ group Florida Department of Citrus, describing the damage to Florida’s orange juice industry. “It’s somewhere between significant and catastrophic. And that’s a big word — I don’t use it lightly.”
It could have implications not only for Florida agriculture, but for the American diet.
Orange juice is big business, and Florida is its epicenter.
According to the Department of Agriculture, the average American drinks 23.74 pounds of orange juice per year — or roughly an ounce each day, more than any other fruit. (By comparison, most Americans eat 10.66 pounds of fresh apples per year, and a measly 2.7 pounds of fresh oranges.)
California and Texas also grow oranges. But Florida is the source of most of the fruit that makes its way into orange juice. Ninety percent of the state’s $1 billion annual harvest is eventually processed into OJ, according to the industry group Florida Citrus Mutual.
That’s no accident. As the food scholar Alissa Hamilton recounts in her book “Squeezed,” America’s love of orange juice was engineered in large part by the Florida citrus industry during the late 1940s — a project aimed at moving excess Florida oranges to other parts of the country.
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In recent decades, however, that same industry has been beset by challenges, all of which have made Irma more difficult to bear.
While orange juice still holds the title of America’s most-consumed “fruit,” demand has plummeted from its late 1990s peak — a development the citrus industry blames on changing lifestyles, such as a decline in sit-down breakfasts, and the proliferation of other beverage options at breakfast and throughout the day.
There’s also growing concerns around sugary beverages, including fruit juice, and a number of researchers and public health organizations have urged consumers to forego it.
Those are far from the industry’s only struggles. In 2005, a stubborn and debilitating disease called huanglongbing, or citrus greening, was discovered in Florida groves.
The disease, which causes bitter and deformed fruits, has since reduced Florida orange and grapefruit revenues by $4.64 billion, according to Jacqueline Burns, the dean for research at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences. It’s also believed to have cost the state economy an estimated $1.76 billion in job losses.
As if that weren’t bad enough, the discovery of the disease coincided with one of the worst hurricane seasons Florida previously had seen. Hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne in 2004 slashed orange crops by a third. Growers suffered several more years of near record-low yields after that as injured trees and groves recovered.
Now, many fear the damage from Irma could be even worse.