SEBRING - The smallest orange crop in 24 years may get smaller this season as pre-harvest fruit drop continues to plague groves, struggling to combat a citrus disease that is now believed to have hit most, if not all, commercial citrus groves in the state.
In its production forecast released Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture projected the 2013-2014 Florida orange crop at 121 million boxes, down 3 percent from its November estimate, and about 9 percent lower than last season.
The new estimate is the lowest since the 1989-1990 freeze, when 110. 2 million boxes were harvested.
Local grower Bobby Barben knows only too well how the Asian citrus psyllid, the insect that spreads greening and is no bigger than a pin head, is devastating citrus trees.
He is estimating that 20 to 40 percent of his groves are infected, and almost all of some (grove) blocks may have the disease.
Greening weakens a citrus tree and eventually kills it. Infected trees produce fruit that are green, misshapen and bitter, unsuitable for sale as fresh fruit or for juice.
Barben said the fruit dropped early on some of the early varieties, and they'll know in February how their Valencia oranges have fared.
Growers don't use or sell fruit that drops on the ground.
"We'll have a better idea in February how bad the drop is going to be," he said.
Greening first surfaced near Homestead in 2005 and spread quickly throughout the citrus growing region.
It is also known as Huanglongbing (HLB) or yellow dragon disease.
Statewide, the USDA estimated early-mid orange varieties at 56 million, down 2 million and Valencia at 65 million, also down 2 million from November. During the 2012-2013 season, Florida produced 133.6 million boxes of oranges.
The USDA blamed the decrease on fruit drop and smaller sizes.
"HLB continues to rear its ugly head and this decrease can be directly attributed to the stress caused by the disease," said Michael W. Sparks, executive vice president/CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual. "This small crop size shows how damaging HLB, or citrus greening, can be and that growers are in a fight for their lives."
The USDA makes its initial estimate in October and revises it monthly as the crop takes shape until the end of the season in July. However, the federal government shutdown delayed the initial estimate until Nov. 8.
Highlands County Citrus Growers Association Executive Director Ray Royce said fruit production is expected to drop across-the board but didn't have any estimates for Highlands County.
Highlands County was Florida's third largest producer of citrus, behind Polk and Hendry counties.
Last year, 19.1 million boxes of citrus were harvested in Highlands County, down from 23 million in the 2011-'12 season.
Royce said growers are doing "very aggressive cooperative spraying" to control the insect, coordinating group efforts and using different chemicals so the psyllid doesn't develop resistance to the pesticides.
It could be a double-whammy for growers.
Along with the drop in production, demand for orange juice is expected to be sluggish, potentially affecting growers who may get less money from juice processors.
Barben said demand for orange juice is falling worldwide. Barben just returned from Brazil, the world's leading orange juice producer, which is facing the same problem, he said.
Americans bought 563.2 million gallons of orange juice during the 2012-2013 season, the lowest amount in 15 years, according to Nielsen data published by the Florida Department of Citrus.
"A combination of marketshare going to more exotic juices like acai berry and energy drinks as well as high prices contributed to the drop in sales, the Wall Street Journal reports," states Time Magazine.
The average price for a gallon of orange juice 10 years ago was $4.40 compared to the $6.20 price point this year. Retail sales for this past season, which ended on Sept. 28, were $3.49 billion - down only 5.2 percent from a decade ago - but volume sales have sunk by a third over the last 10 years, Time magazine reports in an October edition.
"OJ movement is expected to be sluggish," according to the Department of Citrus, which is forecasting "moderately high retail prices...leading to some decline in market demand."
Despite the industry challenges, citrus acreage continues to grow or remain steady in Highlands County.
The USDA estimates there were 2,540 acres of citrus in Highlands in 2011, which grew to 3,240 in 2012 and 2013.
Barben said the focus is to keep producing the fruit, even though it is costing them more, as much as $2,000 an acre, cutting through profits.
"We are limited as much as everyone else," he said.
The Florida citrus industry creates a $9 billion annual economic impact, employing nearly 76,000 people, and covering about 550,000 acres, Florida Citrus Mutual reports.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.