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Tough Times for Organic Growers

The Ledger - 10/17/2011

In Florida, Variety of Problems Cause Organic Citrus Costs and Production to Lag Behind Prices

By Kevin Bouffard
THE LEDGER


Published: Monday, October 17, 2011 at 10:43 p.m.

Last Modified: Monday, October 17, 2011 at 10:43 p.m.

 

LAKE WALES | Citrus grower Bruce Nearon had an organic garden before he started selling organic orange juice in 1974.

 

So it was natural when he purchased the 20-acre Coyote Grove in Lake Wales in 2004 that it would become an organic orange grove, said Nearon, 62, who splits time between the grove and his New Jersey accounting practice.


It lasted just seven years. Nearon regrettably abandoned organic orange growing earlier this year to return to conventional grove practices.


"I could not make this grove produce as much as it should," Nearon said of his decision to abandon organic growing.


"The cost of production (caretaking) is way too high," he added. "Additionally the (farm) price doesn't make up for it."


The reasons Nearon cited in abandoning organic highlight the struggles organic producers nationwide are facing, said Denise Ryan, a director with the Organic Farming Research Foundation in Santa Cruz, Calif.


"We need to build a sales and marketing infrastructure," Ryan said. "We know demand for organic products is growing. We have no infrastructure to meet that demand."


Sales of organic foods grew 7.7 percent to $28.6 billion in 2010 compared to a 1 percent increase in all U.S. food sales, according to the Vermont-based Organic Trade Association. During the last decade, organic food sales grew at a double-digit clip.


Currently just 14,500 family farms produce organic foods ranging from fruits and vegetables to milk and meat, Ryan said. At an annual sales growth of 10 percent, the U.S. will need 42,000 producers by 2015 to keep pace with demand.


Like the rest of the U.S. organic industry, organic citrus in Florida saw rising, if erratic, production between 1997, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture began collecting organic statistics, and 2008, the most recent statistics.


Organic citrus groves in Florida grew from 2,296 acres in 1997 to a peak of 6,290 acres in 2004, USDA figures show. Acreage fell significantly in 2005 and 2006 and recovered for the next two years, but the total fell to 3,452 grove acres in 2008, or 45 percent off the peak.


Organic citrus acreage currently totals about 5,600 acres, said Jose Perez of Florida Organic Growers, one of two private organizations in the state that certifies organic farms for the USDA.

 

DISEASE A HINDRANCE


The deadly bacterial disease citrus greening, the 800-pound gorilla that has weighed so heavily on all Florida citrus growers since its 2005 discovery in the state, has tempered the rise of organic growing in both horticulture and economic terms.


When it comes to greening, "we're in the same ball game as conventional growers," said Benny McLean, 69, the production manager for Uncle Matt's Organic Inc., which owns and manages about 1,200 organic citrus acres in Florida. "We're trying to control psyllids with organic pesticides."


The psyllid hosts the greening bacteria and is primarily responsible for its spread across the state.


The six-year fight against greening has produced two widely accepted practices for controlling the disease - increased use of chemical pesticides and "enhanced nutrition" sprays that replace minor nutrients lost to greening. Neither offers much help to organic growers.


Before greening, conventional practice called for spraying four to six times a year to control various insect populations. Today some growers report spraying pesticides once a month to control psyllid populations.

 

CHEMICALS LIMITED


Organic growers can spray some natural pesticide compounds but not the chemicals commonly used by conventional growers, Nearon and McLean said. They can also use "beneficial insects" that are natural enemies to psyllids, keeping populations down.


"We feel very confident we're doing as well as the conventional boys," McLean said.


Beneficial insects and natural pesticides appeared effective for only for a short time after application at the Coyote Grove, Nearon said.


Organic growers can use chemicals containing zinc, boron, manganese and other nutrients used in enhanced nutrition programs by conventional growers, McLean said. But USDA organic regulations require confirming nutrient losses through expensive lab tests before it will allow spraying.


Greening has also changed the economic picture for Florida citrus in a way that disadvantages organic growers.


The lure of organic growing a decade ago was that farmers would get a premium farm price because organic food products sold at a premium retail price. That farm price advantage has shrunk for oranges and other organic commodities in recent years.


Florida's orange harvests topped 200 million boxes in nine of the 10 seasons through 2003-04 before hurricanes, greening and other disease threats took their toll. The Florida orange crop has fallen well short of 200 million boxes in every season since then with a projected 147 million boxes for the 2011-12 season that just began.


As a result, Florida juice processors, who buy 95 percent of the state's orange crop, have pushed farm prices to near-record levels in the last two seasons, and economists predict high farm prices again this season.


"We see that in organic milk - when the (conventional) farm price increases, the number of organic dairies decreases," said Jane Sooby, grants director at the Organic Farming Research Foundation, who works with organic farmers nationwide, including Florida. "I can see it happening in citrus."


Nearon agreed farm prices for organic oranges have not kept pace with the rising farm prices for conventionally grown Florida oranges.


Combined with higher caretaking costs and lower fruit yields he experienced with organic methods, "the numbers don't justify turning a good grove into organic," Nearon said.

 

[ Kevin Bouffard can be reached at kevin.bouffard@theledger.com or at 863-422-6800. Read more on Florida citrus on his Facebook page, Florida Citrus Witness, http://bit.ly/baxWuU. ]

 

Check the news at The Ledger: http://www.theledger.com/article/20111017/NEWS/111019366?p=4&tc=pg