Nearly in ruin, FL oranges rebound during pandemic as consumers recall immunity-boosting powers

Fresh orange juice in bottles, like these at a Publix, and canned, frozen OJ is flying off the grocery shelves during the COVID-19 pandemic. Citrus growers in Florida say they're glad to be of help. Credit: Peter T. Reinwald.

Oranges are as iconic for Florida as sunny days, Mickey Mouse and sandy beaches, but orange growers have long been struggling, beset by severe weather, a grove-killing bacteria, and adverse market conditions.

Hundreds of growers gave up. It looked like it was time for Florida’s old-school citrus industry to morph into something else or die.

But wait. Sales of classic Florida orange juice, rich in immunity-boosting Vitamin C, skyrocketed in March, up 40 percent in a recent four-week period over the same period a year ago.

The very crop crippled by a disease called citrus greening is getting a new lease on life because it helps resist another disease: coronavirus.

For the week that ended March 14, U.S. consumers bought 6.3 million gallons of fresh (not from concentrate) orange juice, up from 4.5 million in the same week of 2019. That’s a whopping increase of 41 percent.

They bought another 3.6 million gallons of frozen concentrated orange juice in the week that ended March 14, compared with 2.5 million in that week last year. That’s another big increase, at 35 percent.

The total sales of fresh and frozen concentrated OJ for the week ended March 14 was 10.7 million gallons, compared with 7.7 million that week last year, for an overall surge of 40.6 percent.

Those reports came from Nielsen Retail Measurement Services as reported to the Florida Department of Citrus Economic and Market Research Department.

What a turnaround from last fall, when prospects for the industry looked grim.

Orange groves had been ravaged by citrus greening, an insect-borne, imported bacteria that spoils the fruit and kills the trees, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Groves took a big hit from Hurricane Irma in 2017, when Florida crops were destroyed and big buyers turned to foreign growers to buy orange juice that season.

Florida Citrus Mutual, an industry trade association, said that when Sunshine State growers were able to get back in the game, they found themselves locked out by contracts their traditional buyers had penned at discounts with growers in Brazil, Mexico and Costa Rica.

While inventory of authentic Florida-grown citrus accumulated without buyers, consumer demand for orange juice had waned amid concerns about sugar content and competition from sports drinks and high-brow waters, according to the Florida Citrus Commission.

Things got so bad that the commission resorted last fall to spending up to $2 million from its long-term savings – a fund to keep the industry solvent for future generations of growers – to buy intensive national marketing in hopes of reinvigorating consumer demand.

The campaign, pitching Florida orange juice as the “Original Wellness Drink,” was helping. Gov. Ron DeSantis pledged $5 million for marketing in his proposed 2020-21 budget in hopes of helping the struggling industry stabilize.

And then the unimaginable happened: coronavirus suddenly changed the world.

Overnight, America’s instinct to superload natural Vitamin C to bolster the human immune system and resist infectious bugs kicked in big time.

Sales of oranges and orange juice surged, according to state and federal agriculture reports, even though public health authorities cautioned consumers not to count on magic bullets when the only sure defense against the virus is to not come in contact with it.

The renewed interest in its health properties could mark a permanent turnaround for oranges, after playing a hero’s part during the modern world’s greatest global threat since nuclear war. Or it could be a blip.

Ned Hancock, citrus grower and chairman of the Florida Citrus Commission, is not celebrating the fact that a terrible disease made orange juice popular again. But he says he is pleased that consumers have oranges to turn to, and he’s grateful that growers on the brink of financial collapse get a reprieve.

“This is not something we take lightly. We fully understand the costs of this disease on our society. At the same time, we also know that an increase in demand means more growers may keep their groves. And, that will help us feed America when they need us the most,” Hancock told Citrus Industry, a trade publication.

Ray Royce, spokesman for citrus growers in Highland County, is optimistic that consumers will continue to prioritize immunity-boosting orange juice in the post-pandemic world.

He predicts they won’t return to processed beverages and they won’t drop their guard against infectious diseases any time soon.

“People will continue to wash their hands more often six months from now than they did six months ago,” Royce said. “Consumption of orange juice was declining, but now stores can’t stock it fast enough. In the long run, will people have developed a new and different habit?”

Royce believes they will, saying that coronavirus, citrus greening and climate change make clear that a threat in one region of the planet represents a threat to all, and that there are more to come.

“We live in a very small world. Whether it’s a pest or a bacteria or a virus, we’re kidding ourselves if we think we can stop it. We have to be prepared to deal with it,” he said.

The series of setbacks that nearly brought citrus growers to ruin was a catalyst for looking at new ways of doing business.

Florida groves will make only enough oranges this season to fill about 70 million boxes at 90 pounds each, according to recent estimates – which is about one-third what growers could produce in their heyday.

After the devastation wrought by citrus greening, and because of ongoing competition from growers in Brazil and Mexico, no one expects Florida’s orange production to return to its glory days. The question now is, what lies ahead?

“The Department of Citrus has always been about marketing ‘Florida’ grown citrus. For years, they did a great job. But now, we have to look at things differently,” said Florida Sen. Ben Albritton, a fourth-generation citrus grower and Republican representing an agricultural district in south-central Florida.

Longtime citrus growers like Albritton want to explore the pros and cons of creating a federal marketing order that would merge Florida oranges with all other producers’ oranges. It would pool all the players’ resources to generically market orange juice, and the “Florida” brand would not be allowed to stand out.

But that option is pushed back for now. With orange juice sales surging, consumers have rediscovered in this time of crisis what once made oranges and orange juice a part of everyday life in America.

If consumers decide to permanently adopt orange juice into their lives, its role in bolstering immune systems against coronavirus may be what keeps the Florida citrus industry alive.