Outcome of The Florida organic citrus sector: results of a 2003-2004 survey

Organic citrus acreage appears to be on the rise once again, despite an apparent dip in certified acreage between 2001 and 2002. New growers are becoming certified this year and next. In addition, some current organic growers are expanding their certified acreage.

Although increasing supply without a concurrent increase in demand could erode the organic price premium, that possibility does not appear likely in the short-run. Most growers and handlers report that demand has been strong and seems to be increasing. Growers have reported receiving five- to ten-year contracts from processors for their fruit. These long-term contracts suggest that marketers have confidence in the continued strength of demand for organic citrus.

Some growers have established grove care systems and found market outlets that appear to be economically viable for the long-term. Others utilize the organic option as a short-term bridge between alternative land uses, especially between conventional citrus and conversion of land to residential development. Reflecting in part the weak economic outlook for conventional citrus in Florida and the pressure from development, organic citrus growers are more likely to sell their land for development than revert to conventional citrus production. These findings suggest that as long as it continues to be economically viable, organic citrus presents an alternative that can slow the rate of conversion of agricultural land to housing developments in Florida.

Organic citrus production is not without pitfalls however. The wide variety of production practices reflects considerable experimentation and a lack of consensus regarding the most efficient organic grove care practices. A few growers report yields above typical conventional yields, but most report yields that are somewhat lower than conventional. Some growers describe a learning curve, reporting that they struggled to find an organic system that maintained the health of their trees and satisfactory yields during the early years of transitioning to organic management. The variety of production practices and difficulties that some growers have faced highlight the fact that good information on organic citrus production is not widely available. Own trial and error is mentioned more frequently than any other source of organic production information.

The University of Florida has published extension bulletins on organic citrus and is engaging in research on organic weed control methods. This research, as well as research on organic nutrient management and other needs expressed by growers, could bring substantial benefits to growers.

Additional market research could help growers and handlers identify potential new market outlets or adjust their marketing practices. Advertising and promotion aimed at consumers could boost demand for organic citrus. Research on the benefits of organic citrus production, including consumer benefits such as lower pesticide residues and public benefits relating to biodiversity or water quality could help stimulate demand for organic citrus. Research and education about impacts on the environment and human health, including farm worker health, could increase incentives for growers to adopt organic systems. Long-term sustainability and growth of organic citrus production depend on a variety of factors. Unless effective cover cropping systems, organic sprays, or other weed control methods are found, organic citrus production will remain highly dependent on labor and machine inputs to control weeds. As labor and fuel costs rise, this is a cause of some concern. Likewise, organic citrus production is dependent on organic nutrient sources, such as poultry manure, urban plant debris, organic bulk blend fertilizers, and fish emulsion. As organic production increases and input demand rises, the availability and cost of these inputs will become more critical. Research on the potential of expanding supply of organic inputs and on new organic input sources would provide insight regarding the long-term sustainability of organic citrus production

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