The squeeze drought: Fresh OJ is disappearing in Florida

Published on March 28, 2024 at 9:57 am

The beloved morning glass of fresh squeezed orange juice has become something of a memory as residents face an OJ drought.

Tampa Bay area residents said they have been noticing the lack of fresh orange juice on the shelves of local stores and restaurants.

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Tony Yeoman was born and raised in the Rivergrove neighborhood of Tampa. He said he grew up surrounded by orange trees and the smell of sweet citrus at his grandmother’s house.

“In the 1980s, everybody in the neighborhood had a fruit tree that had citrus in their yard,” Yeoman said. “It was just nothing for us to go out there and pick fruit and just eat it off the tree or get a bag full of oranges and juice some.”

He said that, over time, the lack of fresh orange juice in Tampa became noticeable. Then, a vacation to another continent raised some more questions.

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“It just really hit home for me when we recently took a trip to Europe. With a lot of the breakfast spots there, fresh squeezed orange juice is a common thing,” Yeoman said. “I have to come all the way to Europe to get fresh squeezed orange juice, and I live in Florida, what’s going on?”

What’s going on is the one-two punch of citrus greening and residential housing development.

Yeoman even pointed out how the Rivergrove area has replaced so many of its orange trees with brick-built homes.

“This is something that has literally decimated the orange crop in Florida,” he said. “You see a lot of citrus groves being torn down to build housing. You get more money building houses than you do growing oranges.”

“But based on the statistics, (citrus) greening has a much bigger impact on that than building and development in the state.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Huanglongbing, also known as citrus greening, is the most serious citrus disease — there’s no cure and all commercial citrus can get it.With no cure to the disease, the USDA said that removing infected trees can help prevent the spread.

Since greening was first detected in Florida in 2005, it has significantly taken over. Over the last almost 20 years, there has been a steep decline in citrus production of over 75%.

Between the 2021-22 growing season and the 2022-23 one, citrus production in Florida fell almost 62%. Hurricane Ian, which struck Southwest Florida and rolled through the heart of the state’s citrus industry in Sept. 2022, also played a major role in the decline.

The latest forecast for the 2023-24 growing season shows an unchanged forecast following February’s slight increase in orange production.

A chart showing the domestic production of oranges by state.

Big brand names of orange juice that line grocery shelves like Florida’s Natural and Tropicana no longer solely use state-grown citrus. A blend of juice from Mexico, Brazil, and California is mixed because Florida cannot grow enough oranges to keep up with the demand.

In addition to the loss of a favorite drink, Yeoman and other Tampa residents say they are grappling with the loss of identity as Florida runs out of citrus.

“It’s like going to Idaho, and then there are no potatoes or french fries,” Yeoman said. “This is what we’re known for, it’s on our license plates and on a lot of logos. To me, as somebody born and raised here, it’s an identity crisis.”

In the meantime, Yeoman hopes that the state steps in to help save the citrus industry in Florida.

He also recommends supporting the remaining local groves like Dooley Groves in Ruskin, where he now goes to get his orange fix.

“It’s kind of sad because I have kids, and I know that they won’t grow up with those same kind of memories I had, where you could just go outside and pick citrus off of a tree,” Yeoman said. “It was just very common. But not so much now.”

Copyright 2024 WUSF 89.7. To see more, visit WUSF 89.7.

author image Kayla Kissel is a Rush Family radio news intern at WUSF. She is a junior at the University of Central Florida studying broadcast journalism and a member of the Radio Television Digital News Association chapter at the university. Kayla has worked with WUCF TV’s Florida Road Trip as a production intern and with NPR’s NextGenRadio.

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