HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. — Parkesdale Market in Plant City has more to offer than just the famous strawberries, shortcake and milkshakes.
Fresh Florida oranges are a money maker too. In the past, they accounted for a main source of revenue for the historic farm stand.
“Citrus was always our number two crop for years and years and years,” said owner Jim Meeks.
But right now, the market’s machine that cleans and bags fresh citrus is quiet almost all the time, and Meeks says that’s because orange suppliers can’t supply a steady amount of citrus to his market.
“I normally do 200 boxes a week of oranges, and now I’m lucky to do 20 a week. It’s literally a 90% drop,” he said.
What’s happening at Parkesdale illustrates the troubling projection in a new U.S. Department of Agriculture report.
According to the department, January’s Florida citrus forecast is down 10% from the already-dismal forecast in December.
Last year’s Florida orange harvest was the worst since World War II, and if the new forecast proves true, 2023’s harvest could be even worse.
“If realized, this will be 56 percent less than last season’s final production,” the report warns.
Matt Joyner, the Executive Vice President and CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual, is not surprised by the forecast.
“While we’re quite distressed about the damage that’s been inflicted on the industry and the low crop, it’s not to be unexpected,” he said. “This isn’t unexpected at all.”
Though researchers have made progress at mitigating its impact, a devastating disease known as Huanglongbing, or citrus greening, has infected citrus trees at most, if not all, Florida groves and reduced harvests for years.
According to Joyner, however, Hurricane Ian is mostly to blame for this year’s poor projections.
“That was a storm for the ages,” he said. “The size, the scope of that storm, the power of it, the way it sat on top of some of the most productive citrus counties in the State of Florida, there’s no doubt that it had a tremendous impact on our crop this year.”
Joyner said — thanks to the resiliency of Florida growers — Florida orange juice will remain on grocery store shelves across the United States, but at Parkesdale, owner Jim Meeks warns it will likely cost more.
“We were really hoping for a bounce-back year, and we just didn’t get it,” he said.
At his market, a five-pound bag of oranges was $3 last year. Meeks bumped the price to $4 and said he should probably charge more.
Joyner, however, believes the price is still a good deal for a product he said is still exceptional.
He said if there was ever a year where the industry really needed consumer support through purchases of Florida orange juice and other related products, it’s this one.
“The Florida citrus industry supports rural communities down the backbone of the State of Florida,” Joyner said. “We don’t have theme parks; we don’t have beaches in these rural communities. What we do have is agriculture, and we have citrus.”