Editor's note: USDA issued a special notice Oct. 13 explaining its methods for the report mentioned in this article. The update begins paragraph 9.
Florida’s largest citrus grower organization says the latest USDA crop estimate issued Oct. 12 is too high and doesn’t correctly reflect the damage Hurricane Irma inflicted on citrus growers.
USDA’s initial estimate of the 2017-2018 Florida citrus crop is well above the crop Florida Citrus Mutual predicts based on grower survey it conducted following Irma.
In a written statement, Florida Citrus Mutual says the USDA report doesn’t accurately account for the full extent of damage from Hurricane Irma.
“I’m disappointed the USDA did not delay the traditional October crop estimate until more data could be collected to fully assess the damage wrought by Irma,” said Michael Sparks, FCM executive vice president and CEO, in a prepared statement. “Irma hit us just a month ago, and although we respect the skill and professionalism of the USDA, there is no way they can put out a reliable number in that short time period.”
Adam Putman, Florida’s commissioner of agriculture, said Irma’s path through Florida couldn’t have been more lethal to the citrus crop and that quantifying damage will take longer.
“I am concerned that today's forecast does not accurately estimate the damages to our industry, given that groves are still under water and fruit is still dropping from trees. It's important to recognize that the damage to Florida citrus is still unfolding, and will continue to for some time,” Putnam said.
Putnam says Florida citrus sustained more than $760 million in damage due to Irma.
Sept. 10, Irma hit hard Florida’s major citrus-growing region with sustained winds well over 100 mph, blowing fruit off the trees with widespread tree damage.
Update 6:45 p.m. Oct. 13
Late afternoon on Oct. 13, officials with the USDA Agricultural Statistics Service issued a special notice to clarify its methods for the Oct. 12 crop report, which it says “doesn’t directly forecast the impact of Hurricane Irma on the 2017-2018 production.”
Though it is difficult to know the exact impact the storm brought to Florida’s potential crop production, the USDA said an approximate impact can be implied because of the timing of the storm.
“The tree inventory survey work was complete and fruit per tree survey work was near planned completion. No additional fruit per tree work was completed after the storm made landfall. The initial measurements of fruit size and the amount of fruit dropped conducted on selected tree limbs occurred soon after the storm,” according to the Oct. 13 notice.
The USDA fruit size and drop survey reveals a much-higher percentage fruit drop than in previous seasons, and the measured proportion of this season’s fruit drop can be compared to recent years to assess the approximate impact of the storm.
“For example, recalculating crop size using the most recent five-year average percentage fruit drop rather than the October 2017 survey-indicated percentage fruit drop would suggest a Florida orange production total of 75.5 million boxes as compared to the published forecast of 54.0 million boxes. Other fruit drop and/or size assumptions would generate different assumed production totals and implied effect from the devastating storm,” the notice said.
Citrus Mutual estimate
The FCM’s post-Irma grower survey leads the group to estimate total fruit loss at more than 50 percent with some reports of 100 percent fruit loss in the Southwest part of the state.
The USDA makes its first citrus estimate in October each year, and the estimate will be revised monthly until the end of the season in July.
The USDA’s total orange forecast is for 54 million boxes, made up of 23 million early and midseason and 31 million boxes of Valencias. The total grapefruit forecast is for 4.9 million boxes, with whites at 900,000 and colored at 4 million boxes. Total specialty comes in at 1 million boxes.
The FMC survey predicts the 2017-2018 orange crop will be closer to 31 million boxes.
“The long-term effect of Irma on our industry will take years to sort out,” Sparks said. “We had groves underwater and those trees aren’t just going to bounce back and continue producing fruit. They are gone.”