Stories of the fatal bacterial disease citrus greening often focus on growers, who have seen their annual harvest decline by more than 70 percent because of greening.
Just as severely affected, however, have been Florida’s fresh citrus packing houses, which buy a large portion of Florida’s annual orange, grapefruit and tangerine harvests and sell them to supermarket chains and retailers across the U.S. and ship to export markets, including Japan, Canada and European countries.
In the 2000-01 citrus season, Florida had 106 citrus packing houses operating across the citrus belt, according to the Florida Department of Citrus. That was before greening was first confirmed in Florida in the fall of 2005. Each of the top 24 packing houses sold more than 1 million cartons of fresh citrus that season, according to the Lakeland-based Citrus Administrative Committee, a federal agency that regulates the industry. All packing houses combined shipped 55 million cartons.
The 2016-17 season saw only 26 packing houses operating in Florida, less than a quarter of the total from 16 seasons earlier, the statistics show. Among them, only one, Egan Fruit Packing LLC in Fort Pierce, will ship more than 1 million cartons, and the industry output in 2016-17 will total just more than 12 million cartons, a 78 percent decline.
Few expect things to improve in the near future, which is why several of the remaining packing houses, including Ben Hill Griffin Inc. in Frostproof, have already announced they won’t reopen for the 2017-18 season.