Florida's struggling and storm-battered citrus industry took another hit Thursday as the orange crop forecast for the current growing season was reduced by 7.4 percent.
And industry officials anticipate the forecasts will continue to decline as the season progresses.
“Unfortunately, I don't think this will be the last decrease we see,” said Shannon Shepp, executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus. “Hurricane Irma had widespread impact on our industry, and growers are still trying to pick up the pieces. High winds and flooding rains damaged already weakened trees making it even more difficult to hold on to the fruit that's left.”
The projection from the U.S. Department of Agriculture is that the Florida citrus industry will produce enough oranges to fill 50 million 90-pound boxes and 4.65 million similar sized boxes of grapefruit during the 2017-2018 season.
A month ago, the forecast for the already-dire season —- following damage from Irma and years of losses from deadly citrus greening disease —- was a decades-low 54 million boxes of oranges and 4.9 million boxes of grapefruit.
At the time, state Agriculture Commissioner and gubernatorial candidate Adam Putnam said the forecast numbers were too high based on the damages he'd seen.
On Thursday, Putnam said the “forecast shows that the damage to Florida citrus from Hurricane Irma is still unfolding, and it will continue to for some time.”
The latest numbers would result in a 27 percent decrease for oranges from the past season, with grapefruit production falling 40 percent.
Florida, which accounted for 49 percent of total U.S. citrus production in the past season, has been struggling for a decade against citrus greening, an incurable bacterial disease.
Throughout the decade before the disease was found, the state's orange harvest annually topped 200 million boxes, with a high of 244 million boxes in the 1997-1998 season.
Irma quieted pre-season optimism from growers, who reported crop losses of 30 percent to 70 percent from the September storm. Growers in Southwest Florida were hardest hit, with trees uprooted and roots damaged as groves were underwater from weeks.
An estimate by the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services said the citrus industry accounted for $761 million of the $2.5 billion in damages suffered by the state's agriculture industry from Irma.
Shepp expects that number will also grow as the season progresses.
Putnam and Gov. Rick Scott, along with members of the state's congressional delegation, unsuccessfully pushed to have Florida's agriculture industry added to recent federal disaster-aid packages.
Putnam said work continues on the federal level.
Meanwhile, Scott has announced he will ask for $21 million to help struggling citrus growers as part of his upcoming budget requests for the 2018 legislative session.
Scott wants the money to include $10 million for citrus research, $4 million for marketing and $7 million for post-storm relief.