Florida’s farmers have spent nearly two decades fending off plagues, freezes and storms that decimated their orange crops. A growing number of them have had enough.
A booming real estate market has led many to conclude it would be more profitable to sell their land than to continue to cultivate the Sunshine State’s signature fruit. The number of acres dedicated to growing oranges in Florida has declined by more than half since 2000, to just over 300,000 this year, according to a preliminary US Department of Agriculture report.
“It all comes down to economics,” said Trevor Murphy, a third-generation grower in Highlands County, in inland South Florida. Murphy recently sold some of his lower-yielding land, including 10 acres set to become a vacation home for a buyer from Miami.
Florida has been shifting away from its agricultural roots for years, driven by a changing state economy, swings in the weather and shifting consumer tastes. Citrus and Orange counties barely grow the fruits they were named after, and attractions like Walt Disney World sit atop former groves. Yet the emergence of greening, an incurable bacterial disease caused by the invasive Asian citrus psyllid, has quickened the long-term erosion of the state’s citrus industry.
Greening has reduced Florida’s citrus production by 75% since 2005, according to the USDA, and the number of growers dropped by 62% from 2002 to 2017. Replacing diseased trees can take years, and for strapped farmers, selling land instead can help generate needed funds.
If a grower hasn’t had cash coming in for a couple of years, Murphy said, it “makes it a little easier to sell.”