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Florida set for a fine fall, but Sunshine State produce landscape changing as players rise and fall

Though parts of the state are drier than normal, Florida is in good shape as its fall and winter vegetable and citrus programs ramp up this month.

Vegetable farmers in Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry and Lee counties are harvesting cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, herbs and fall watermelons while also preparing land and planting for later winter crops. In Miami-Dade County harvesting of the fall vegetable crop and winter planting are under way. Crop-report-1Grower Scott Rush checks in on eggplant at Lipman's main Florida farm, located in the southwestern part of the state in Immokalee. (Photo by Chip Carter)Cabbage and leafy greens are in the ground in Flagler and Putnam counties. And Florida growers are already shipping eggplant, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, fall watermelons and some specialty items to market.

Meanwhile, the Florida produce landscape is changing.

Investors from outside the state are gobbling up a significant portion of strawberry production, even as the season's start date rolls back earlier and earlier. Just a few years ago Florida strawberry farmers were thrilled to have fruit on the market by Christmas. In the last five years that target date has shifted to Thanksgiving. This year, Wish Farms in Plant City, FL actually harvested its first berries before Halloween.

Sunshine State tomato growers are fighting foreign competition with improved and proprietary varieties, like Bejo's "Tasti-Lee", a product of the University of Florida's Institute of Food & Agricultural Science and Lipman's newly introduced "Crimson Queen" round and "Ripe Bites" grape tomatoes.

Citrus growers are fighting greening tooth and nail as production diminishes.

On the flip side, the state's entry into the peach market is gaining momentum as another IFAS product, a peach that needs very few chill hours but yields sweet, juicy fruit, gains a commercial toehold. Florida's blueberry production continues to soar, again thanks to early bearing varieties from IFAS. And last year, the Florida Pomegranate Growers Association formed to take advantage of another burgeoning opportunity.

Most pressingly, the longer-term effects of citrus greening continue to chip away at the state's citrus crop. The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued its initial forecast earlier this month estimating the 2013-14 Florida orange crop will be 125 million boxes, down six percent from last season.

The USDA estimated early-mid varieties at 58 million boxes, down from 67.1 million at the end of last season, while the Valencia orange total is actually up at 67 million boxes compared to 66.5 million in 2012-13.

"The number shows [greening] continues to affect our industry and growers are faced once again with a challenging season," said Michael W. Sparks, executive vice president and chief executive officer of Florida Citrus Mutual. "The good news is that at this size crop, there should be upward pressure on prices."

Some growers have lost as much as 40 percent of production to greening. Others are hiring fewer workers this season in anticipation of a smaller crop. And the Florida Department of Citrus, funded by a grower-paid box tax, asked the state to approve a $3.8 million budget reduction for the upcoming season -- down from $58.3 million last year -- due to declining revenues. About $4 million of that money will go to greening research, bringing the seven-year total for such efforts to more than $60 million.

But the Sunshine State still accounts for 65 percent of all U.S. citrus production and there are those who remain bullish about the industry's future.

In September, Bayer CropScience and Florida Specialty Crop Foundation announced a three-year, $200,000 grant program for greening research at the Florida Citrus Research and Development Foundation in Lake Alfred.

More significantly, earlier this year, the Coca-Cola Co. announced it will spend as much as $2 billion to plant 25,000 acres of new orange groves in Florida -- about 5 million trees. As the owner of the Minute Maid juice line, the company's stake in the game is clear: some 96 percent of Florida oranges are used for juice.

While total Florida citrus acreage is the lowest it has been since 1966 at 524,000, the value of the orange crop continued to rise last season, with $1.5 billion in sales, up from $1.3 billion, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture.