Throwback Thursday: 1980s Freezes Reshaped Florida’s Citrus Industry
January 29, 2015
In late January thirty years ago, Florida’s citrus industry was assessing the damage done by the “Freeze of the Century,” which had struck the state Jan 20-22, 1985. Citrus producers have to wait for weeks after a freeze before they can fully assess damage to trees, but it was gradually becoming apparent that this freeze, the second to strike the state in 13 months, would be a game changer for the industry.
The freeze affected the entire peninsula, including the southern edge of the citrus belt, which at that time followed a line from Palm Beach to Naples. It would become apparent some weeks later that the the state’s citrus belt, which had been gradually moving southward since the beginning of the century, would accelerate.
Despite some attempts by growers to replant, most of the groves north of Interstate 4 would soon be removed and the land put to other uses. There, pine tree farms, housing developments and cow pasture would supplant the citrus groves. New plantings would occur south of I-4 — in many cases, a very long way to the south.
Today, counties like Orange and Citrus host little commercial production of their namesake fruit. A visit to the 226-foot Florida Citrus Tower at Clermont offers stark insight into the extent of the weather-driven changes that occurred in the citrus industry in the 20th Century. Built in 1958, the tower offered visitors a panoramic view of the rolling hills of Florida’s ridge section and the orange groves that covered them as far as the eye could see. Today, visitors see mainly planted pines, scrublands and residential developments. Out on the horizon loom the outlines of Orlando area theme parks.
Today, citrus trees of one kind or another grow in yards and gardens in most areas of the state. Some commercial production persists in 26 counties, but the bulk of the state’s commercial production lies in the southern part of the peninsula, south of I-4. Citrus growers have adopted new planting and husbandry practices and the trees they plant are more cold-hardy.
Experts fear the 21st Century may see even more impact on the citrus industry that that of the 1980s. While the freezes remained a concern, new challenges have emerged. In the 2000s, hurricanes, pests and diseases battered the industry, sometimes in concert. For example, in 2004 hurricanes destroyed crops and at the same time spread citrus canker so widely that eradicating it was impossible. Then citrus greening (Huanglongbing, or HLB) was discovered in Florida in fall 2005. Scientists have mounted an unprecedented effort to find a cure as growers and state and federal agencies work urgently to limit its spread.