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Business Observer Friday, May 10, 2019 2 years ago

As Florida continues to reel from citrus greening, growers, processors and researchers explore another option — lemons

Members of Florida's citrus industry are planting more lemon trees to capitalize on the fruit's many uses.
by: Grier Ferguson Sarasota-Manatee Editor

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

Everyone’s heard the expression — used to describe turning a bad situation into a good one. Now Florida growers, processors and researchers, including several around the west coast of the state, have put their own spin on it: when life gives you citrus greening, grow lemons.

The Florida citrus industry has been hit hard by citrus greening disease, otherwise known as huanglongbing or HLB. The situation has led to an unprecedented decline in orange output for growers statewide, which, in turn, impacts an array of other entities in the orange supply chain. 

“Growers have been looking for alternatives really for the last six, seven, eight years," says Fran Becker, senior vice president at Peace River Citrus Products based in Arcadia, DeSoto County. "There’s been some success with non-citrus, such as blueberries and peaches.”

Up next? Lemon trees. The trees can be affected by greening but are more tolerant to it. “They can survive much easier with the bacteria,” Becker says. “When we noticed that, we realized there was potential.”

He says lemons were grown in Florida in the 1950s and 1960s, but people gravitated away from them. “There was a small window for fresh fruit for lemons — late in the summer and early in the fall — and no other real market for them,” says Becker. 

Courtesy. Fran Becker, senior vice president at Peace River Citrus Products, says he thinks Florida will see more lemon tree acreage planted in the next few years.

These days, that’s changed, with other uses for lemons and lemon byproducts, including juice and oil used for food and cleaning products. “Now we have an opportunity to grow lemons for the juice market,” Becker says. Plus, there’s still a market for fresh lemons.

“It’s not a huge market compared to the orange market, but it is new, and it’s a real bright spot for us because the trees are doing so well," Becker says. "It’s exciting. I think we’ll see more acreage planted in the next few years.”

Growth of lemons

Florida growers aren’t going full throttle into lemons, instead moving slowly. “Nobody is going to go out and plant 1,000 acres on their own,” says Becker.

If someone is already growing oranges, grapefruit and tangerines and has extra acreage — which a lot of people do because of greening, he says — lemons could be a good fit. He’s seeing people plant lemon trees in smaller footprints, like 20, 40 or 60 acres.  

As a whole, the citrus industry has moved further south in Florida. Becker attributes it partially to freezes of the 1980s and some to development in the Orlando area. There are some citrus groves elsewhere, but, he says, “the majority of it is going to be south of I-4 in traditional citrus areas we have now.” He thinks lemons will follow that same path.

Anna Jameson, who owns Brite Leaf Citrus Nursery in Lake Panasoffkee in Sumter County with Nate Jameson, is one of the new lemon growers in Florida. “We are primarily a contract grower, so we grow what our customers ask for,” Anna Jameson says. “We don’t do a lot of speculation trees.”

Brite Leaf is growing lemons for a couple of commercial clients. They are existing customers who decided to order lemons in the last year or two. “With everything that’s affecting the industry, everyone’s looking for something to fill a void, so guys that have traditionally been juice orange growers are looking for some small blocks,” Jameson says. She says growers are planting lemons as a trial to figure out if the crop is a good option. “I don’t know where it’s headed yet, and honestly, I don’t think they do either yet.”

Courtesy. Anna Jameson, of Brite Leaf Citrus Nursery, says a couple of her clients have ordered lemon trees in the last year or two.

She, like Becker, is seeing people plant lemon trees on smaller amounts of land — for some five to 10 acres and for others 20 to 50 acres. “Nobody’s going to go bet the farm on lemons,” Jameson says. “A lot of growers are willing to look at new opportunities, especially in face of HLB. Everyone’s trying to make it work.”

The nursery also sells lemon trees to homeowners who buy one, two or a handful. The popularity of lemons with homeowners is driven by influences from lifestyle gurus such as Martha Stewart, Jameson says, but people are also more knowledgeable in general about buying citrus these days. “A lot of homeowners now are much more in tune and paying attention to the news, saying ‘I want to buy a tree that’s greening-resistant.’” 

Mixon Fruit Farms in Bradenton, meanwhile, added another five acres of lemon trees about four or five years ago, says Janet Mixon. The farm, in the citrus business 80 years, sells to a lot of Chick-fil-As, and there was a larger demand for lemons to make lemonade.  

"We’ve been dealing with a lot of bad news, and this is a bright spot in all of that. For right now, it looks very promising.” — Fran Becker, senior vice president, Peace River Citrus Products

When the farm isn’t harvesting lemons, customers have to get the citrus elsewhere, likely California or overseas. “Florida lemons have thinner skins and a whole lot more juice than California lemons,” she says. 

Mixon planted another alternative crop in the face of greening — about seven acres of bamboo soon to be harvested and sold to people to eat. “Farmers are amazing,” Mixon says. “They don’t give up easy, and they know their soil, they know weather — they’re brilliant actually, so they’ll try anything that can keep the farmland going.”

Tests and trends

In the last two and a half to three years, there’s been a huge uptick in production of lemon trees in the state, says Fred Gmitter, a citrus breeder and professor of horticultural science at the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred. He says, “There’s a lot of interest in lemons in Florida right now.”

Courtesy. Fred Gmitter, a citrus breeder and professor of horticultural science at the UF/IFAS Citrus Research and Education Center, says peel oil is one of the most valuable commodities that comes out of the lemon business.

Several years ago, a major beverage company approached his team, interested in lemons being produced with more peel oil than ordinary lemons, he says. “My research is to develop new varieties that have some special attributes of value,” Gmitter says.

Peel oil, he says, is one of the most valuable commodities that comes out of the lemon business, used for flavorings, fragrances, soaps, shampoos and more.

At the time the company approached them, probably 15 years ago now, Gmitter says there was no lemon production in Florida, and they were criticized for doing something that wasn't focused on oranges. But sometimes, he says, you have to do something in advance that may not meet immediate needs — an entrepreneurial move for researchers. 

“Fast forward to citrus greening,” he says. “One of the more tolerant kinds of citrus to the disease is lemons.” 

Lemons — the fresh fruit along with the juice, oil and pectin — provide another source of revenue for growers and processors. “When you’re making juice, you’re making oil, too, and the oil is really liquid gold in many ways,” he says.

Courtesy, Qibin Yu and Fred Gmitter, UF/IFAS Citrus Research and Education Center. Older lemon trees with fruit in the Vero Beach area.

Gmitter and his team are preparing paperwork to release their top three lemon varieties for Florida growers, which should be out within six to 12 months. The good thing about lemons, he says, is they grow really quickly and come into bearing quickly, too.

Growers and nurseries are required by Florida law to get citrus budwood from the budwood office to propagate new, clean trees, including lemon trees. "All of our varieties are tested on an annual basis,” says Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Bureau of Citrus Budwood Registration Chief Benjamin Rosson. “They don’t have any disease detrimental to production.”

Rosson says there was a surge in distributing lemon budwood a couple years ago.

“One of the soft drink companies was really wanting peel oil,” he says. “We saw quite an increase in lemon budwood going out. We propagated more lemons in the last couple years than we did grapefruit.” 

Budwood is overnighted by FedEx to nurseries and growers from a facility in Chiefland where it’s stored. It’s offered on a first-come, first-served basis.

During the 2017 to 2018 reporting period, which runs from July 1 through June 30, a total of 397,858 new lemon trees were propagated across the state, an increase over the previous year. Rosson hopes that trend will continue.

Make lemonade

As a way to encourage growers to plant more lemon trees, Florida’s Natural Growers, a division of Citrus World Inc. based in Lake Wales, introduced an incentive program that included the fruit in 2017.

The program aimed to support the cooperative’s lemonade sales, a growth area for Florida’s Natural, says Senior Marketing Manager Nikki Hayde.

Growers were incentivized with $10 per tree planted if they agreed to supply Florida’s Natural with lemons. The initiative targeted 50,000 trees or 100,000 boxes of lemons. The lemon program was immediately fully subscribed in 2017, Hayde says. There could be additional incentives offered in the future depending on the cooperative’s needs.

“If you look at major brands, they all have lemon products, lemonade mostly,” Becker says. “It’s just kind of a natural fit.”

Courtesy. Fran Becker at one of Peace River Citrus Products' new lemon groves in St. Lucie County this March. Becker says the 14-month-old tree is a great example of how well lemon plantings in Florida are doing.

Becker’s Peace River Citrus Products mostly processes fruit from other growers and grows about 10% of what it processes itself. Over the last two years, it planted lemon trees. The trees produce fruit in two to three years, says Becker, compared to three to five years for orange trees. “We picked some this season,” he says.

Lemons, of course, aren’t a miracle plant. One challenge is workforce, given the late July to August time frame is more difficult for finding agricultural labor. Also, like other citrus, lemons are cold susceptible. “We have to be very vigilant and protect them if we have a frost event or a freeze event,” Becker says.

On the flip side, clientele for Florida lemons is nearly unlimited, contends Becker. “Anyone purchasing lemons or lemon juice right now on the east coast is having to purchase those from California, Mexico or overseas. When you have lemons here without that transportation cost, it becomes attractive for buyers.”

Becker can even foresee a time in the future when retailers use the allure of “Florida lemons” as a marketing tool.

For growers, processors and researchers in citrus industry, that may seem far off, since the last several years haven’t been the best of times. “We’ve been dealing with a lot of bad news, and this is a bright spot in all of that,” Becker says. “For right now, it looks very promising.”

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