TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) -- As a forecast was lowered for Florida's orange production, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday proposed increasing state funding for the struggling citrus industry by 5 percent.
DeSantis included $29.2 million for the citrus industry as part of a proposed $99.7 billion budget for the fiscal year that will start July 1.
The request was announced shortly before the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a report that forecast Florida's citrus industry would produce enough oranges in the current growing season to fill 46 million 90-pound boxes, the common industry measurement.
The federal agency had initially projected Florida growers would produce enough oranges for 47 million boxes during the current season, down from 52.8 million boxes during the 2020-2021 season. Most of Florida's oranges are processed into orange juice.
"Today's forecast underscores why support from leadership and policymakers is so important," Florida Department of Citrus Executive Director Shannon Shepp said in a prepared statement. "This is an industry that continues to fight and remains a vital component of the state's economy."
The industry has seen its production sharply decline the past couple of decades because of issues such as residential and commercial development, foreign imports and a devastating bacterial disease known as citrus greening. Florida is looking at one of its smallest harvests since the 1940s.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Thursday upped the forecast of grapefruit production from 3.8 million boxes to 4.1 million boxes, equal to the amount grown in the 2020-2021 season, which ended in July. It also forecast 900,000 boxes of specialty fruits. The estimate for specialty fruits, mostly tangerines and tangelos, is unchanged from the start of the season and an increase of 10,000 boxes from the past season.
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Florida's budget for the fiscal year that began July 1 includes $27.7 million to support the citrus industry, with the biggest chunks going to marketing and research.
DeSantis' new proposal, which lawmakers will consider during the legislative session that starts in January, includes $15 million for marketing, $8 million for research and $6.2 million for the Citrus Health Response Program.
The Department of Citrus has ramped up marketing efforts, promoting the health aspects of orange juice as "The Original Wellness Drink," since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fort Myers-based Alico, Inc., a major player in the citrus industry, said in federal Securities and Exchange Commission filings this week that its production dropped last year but that it got a boost from higher prices linked to consumer demand for orange juice.
The company said increased consumption led to decreased inventory levels at juice processors and, as a result, higher prices.
"As we commence our current harvest season and look out to fiscal year 2022, we are encouraged to see consumption of not-from-concentrate orange juice remaining strong, and processor inventories are at lower-than-normal levels," company President and CEO John Kiernan said in a prepared statement Tuesday. "We believe market prices for fiscal year 2022 should remain near or above those recorded in the 2020/2021 harvest season."
In a sign of optimism about this season, a recent survey conducted by the Florida Grower publication found 42 percent of respondents anticipated their harvests will match the prior season and another 27 percent expected higher production. The survey said 62 percent planned to replant trees.
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