If you don’t know the name Elizabeth Steger, you’re not in the Florida citrus industry. An economist who works with several players in the industry, Steger is the industry’s version of Punxutawney Phil, the famous groundhog who predicts the beginning of spring each year depending on whether he sees his shadow or not on Feb. 2.
Steger, an economist based in Kissimmee, FL who consults for Florida’s Natural Growers in Lake Wales, among other clients, releases an early Florida citrus season forecast about this time every year. For the first time in a long time, those numbers look better than the previous year.
Steger’s 2017 season projection shows a forecast crop of 75.5 million boxes of oranges, roughly a 10 percent increase over Florida’s 2016-17 production of 68.7 million boxes.
Due to HLB — citrus greening, a lethal disease that has decimated Florida groves — Florida citrus production has dropped each year since 2005, when the infection was first found. Florida production hit an all-time high in 2003-04 at 242 million boxes of friut. Since then the state has lost about 75 percent of that production total (though it still pumps $8.6 billion annually into the state economy and provides 46,000 jobs).
Steger released her first forecast ahead of the 1997-98 season and its often used to begin benchmarking price points for the coming season, since USDA’s first official citrrus forecast is not released until October.
By then, Florida’s harvest is already underway. Steger bases her projections on reports from the field about planted acreage and density of budding trees, among other factors.
Steger’s estimate last year was 60.5 million. No one is disappointed that USDA believes the state picked about 12 percent more oranges than that.
A dry early spring has the trees set well coming into the harvest season; last year’s wet weather led to an early fruit drop that cost the industry millions.
Steger’s estimate may also reflect the impact of growers like those with the Dundee Citrus Growers Association, a co-op that’s fighting back with protected growing undercover (think giant screened in back porches) and even new outdoor plantings, like a 300-acre plot planted earlier this year.
Click here for a look at what Florida citrus farmers are doing to fight back against greening and protect a heritage industry.