Amid Constant Decline in Production

While up north the sugar industry is having a bumper crop, in the south, the citrus industry is in dire straits. The 2018-2019 crop has been plagued by many factors which has resulted in a steep drop in the delivery of oranges, by as much as thirteen percent. The industry is experiencing all sorts of issues from the shortage of farm hands to a citrus disease and less investment. So what is the future of an industry that has not been able to secure a strong footing? News Five’s Isani Cayetano headed to the valley and files the following report.

Isani Cayetano, Reporting

The citrus industry, one of three pillars in the local agro-productive sector, is in dire straits as production continues to decline on an annual basis.  Owing to the sharp decrease are several challenges, including shortage of labour for harvest and low inputs due to a lack of financing, among other factors.  The total delivery of oranges for the 2018/2019 crop fell by almost fourteen percent when compared to the previous year.

Dr. Eugene Cleland, C.E.O., Citrus Growers Association

“The industry, like I have explained, has seen drastic decline from about seven point eight million boxes down to about two point two million boxes because of a combination of issues: HLB being the primary, lack of financing where growers are unable to put the required inputs, financing for replants and the overall understanding of how to plant under HLB environment.”

Citrus greening disease or HLB as it is otherwise known, continues to plague the industry and is caused by a vector-transmitted pathogen.  According to Dr. Eugene Cleland who succeeds Henry Anderson as the Chief Executive Officer of the Citrus Growers Association, the CGA has recently acquired two tolerant, patented varieties of seeds from Florida.

Dr. Eugene Cleland

“If procured by growers and managed using the best practice will be the salvation for the industry.  These plants come into production late this year and subsequent years, but besides just planting citrus we are recommending that growers diversify because our vision is to transform from a citrus industry to a juice industry.”

That push for diversification comes amid a constant drop in the average box yield per acre of orange and grapefruit.  In 2019, growers are harvesting sixty-three boxes of oranges per acre and forty-three boxes for grapefruit.

Dr. Eugene Cleland

“With the production reducing significantly, growers, by extension have less working capital at their disposal and because of less working capital at their disposal they are unable to do all that is required to replant.”

And so, they are being encouraged to explore other crops, including pineapple, that have a growing demand in the region.

Dr. Eugene Cleland

“We have been promoting, along with CPBL, planting pineapple in the first instance.  We have a fifteen acre plot of pineapple and I will take you guys and show you what we have been doing with the pineapple and CGA, likewise, has a fifteen acre plot of pineapple.  There’s demand for pineapple juice in CARICOM with a tariff protection and there is actually demand for about a thousand acres of pineapple, so there is a market for pineapple and the price is pretty much reasonable to give the grower a decent return.”

But not all farmers are making the switch.  For decades, citrus has been the lifeblood of the Stann Creek District and with thousands of acres of groves, it is still their crop of choice.  Their biggest challenge, however, is replanting and subsequently getting the fruits to the factory.

Dr. Eugene Cleland

“Grapefruit this year was at twenty dollars per box.  Oranges were around thirteen to fourteen dollars per box.  So you have strong prices for the next two to three years primarily because the reserves in the other producing countries have been relatively low also because of the challenges of citrus greening.  So you have strong prices and you have a market, it’s just to get the trees in the ground to produce, to get the industry back to the levels that you want.  But when you have a product, the challenge with the product is always to find a market.  We have a market and we have good prices, it’s to get the production back to those optimal levels.”

Getting back to those optimal levels simply means that there has to be a massive replanting across the industry.  That comes at a significant cost, especially to medium and small growers.  They form the vast majority of CGA’s membership.

Dr. Eugene Cleland

“We at the CGA have been actively lobbying the lending institutions.  We were successful to have gotten fourteen million dollars facility from Social Security Board to on-lend to growers.  This facility is what I call a concessionary structured agriculture facility because what it has done, or the way it is designed is that the growers are allowed to borrow at a minimum a hundred and fifty thousand dollars and don’t have to pay any principal until after seven years.  So you only pay interest for the first seven years and subsequently for the next eight years you pay the interest and principal.”

Despite the availability of financing, small growers complain that the rates of eight to nine percent on the loans are too prohibitive.  In our second segment, we will look at what is being done in an attempt to revive the industry. Reporting for News Five, I am Isani Cayetano.

Channel 5