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Florida citrus farmers facing challenges, optimistic about 2019 season

Posted at 1:08 PM, Aug 18, 2019
and last updated 2019-08-19 06:41:38-04

LaBELLE, Fla. -- Agriculture is the second leading industry in our state behind tourism. And Florida produces more than 70% of the United State’s supply of citrus, according to Visit Florida.

Growers are optimistic for the 2019 citrus season, one farmer tells Fox 4 the past couple of years have been tough, but says it's a part of the business.

“You don’t plant a crop when it’s good, you plant when you need to plant, and same thing with growing citrus, we do the things we have to do irregardless of what we are facing,” said Wayne Simmons, Manager, Labelle Fruit Company, LLC.

The 60 acres of Labelle Fruit Company is Wayne Simmons livelihood. “I’m a 5th generation Floridian, I’ve been in the business pretty much all my life," said Simmons.

But it hasn’t been an easy road, especially after Hurricane Irma. “Had to carry two years of production costs, with very limited income, not many businesses can survive in that kind of environment,” said Simmons.

“It was frustrating that it took two years to start getting money into some of the growers hands," said Steve Smith, Executive Vice President, Gulf Citrus Growers Association.

In June, Governor Ron DeSantis announced more than $77 million was approved for citrus growers impacted by Hurricane Irma.

“I lost at least 50 percent of my crop, that was due to be picked, so basically limited crop 2018 season,” said Simmons.

Post-Irma, the state of Florida produced 45 million boxes of oranges, which is 30 million boxes short of a good production year.

For almost 15 years, growers have been battling something else. “95 to 98 percent of trees that are growing are impacted by citrus greening,” said Simmons.

Citrus greening is a disease spread by an insect that infects the leaves and oranges. Scientists are currently working on finding a solution.

To put into perspective how bad citrus greening has impacted Florida orange production, prior to 2005 the state was producing around 240 million boxes each season, and now that number is 75 million.

Wayne’s grove produces around 300 to 400 boxes each season.

“This is my passion, I love getting dirt under my fingernails, I love being outdoors, and it’s my passion so I love to do it, probably not the smart thing to do many times, but I still do it,” said Simmons.

And the 5th generation Floridian worries about the future of the industry, but remains optimistic “Florida is made to grow oranges, it’s the sunshine state, ya know, that’s liquid sunshine, but the citrus industry will still be here, just different, just like life in general.”

Production numbers for the 2019 citrus season will be released in October.