Disappearing orange groves are forcing farmers into the beer and lubricant markets

Code orange.
Code orange.
Image: Reuters/Scott Audette
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Florida’s days as the orange basket of America may be numbered. A pernicious disease that has plagued the state’s citrus groves is forcing farmers to find new ways to do business, even if it means getting out of the orange industry.

Some of those growers are being drawn to unconventional markets in the wake of devastating losses. That has included growing olives, hops (for beer), pomegranates, and even pongamia (a type of legume), reports the Wall Street Journal (paywall).

The citrus farmers who have embraced growing tropical pongamia trees are particularly interesting, as the switch steers them out of the food business entirely. The poisonous seeds produced by the trees are high in oil content and can be converted into biofuel, animal feed, even lubricant. The tree is native to Australia and India and has been used for lamp oil, soap, and leather tanning.

One of the primary pongamia seed companies in the US, TerViva, is currently establishing pilot projects in Florida and Hawaii, to replace disappearing orange grove and sugarcane crops, respectively.

For many Floridian citrus growers, switching to an alternative crop may become necessary as they try to weather what’s become a perfect storm of setbacks from a tree disease called citrus greening. The disease—also known as huanglongbing—was first discovered in Asia, and was found in Brazil in 2004. The following summer, it cropped up in the south Florida cities of Homestead and Florida City. Since then, it has spread to California, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina and Texas, crippling citrus trees’ ability to produce fruit and eventually killing them.

That farmers are producing fewer oranges is alarming enough for the state’s agricultural sector, but perhaps even more worrying is that groves are also physically shrinking in size as swaths of trees die off. Between 1995 and 2016, the number of orange-bearing acres dwindled by more than 31%.

But even if citrus growers didn’t have to contend with diseased orange groves, they’d still have to confront an existential crisis that’s been plaguing them for years.

Orange juice hasn’t always been a staple of the American breakfast table. In fact, until World War II wrapped up, the drink wasn’t widely available in the US. What little orange juice Americans did drink was either fresh-squeezed or in a form—boiled then canned—that didn’t taste very good.

After the war, scientists developed a new process for preserving the juice. Rather than boil it, the juice is pasteurized and filtered before being evaporated under vacuum and heat. Near the end of the process, water is added to the mixture to make “from concentrate” orange juice.

The product proved hugely popular, as per capita orange juice consumption jumped from under eight pounds per person in 1950 to over 20 pounds per person in 1960, according to a report from the University of Florida. By 1970, 90% of Florida oranges were being used for juice.

Starting in the 1990s, though, consumption began to level off and decline, the result of shifts in breakfast trends, higher orange juice prices, and people increasingly trying to avoid sugary drinks. In the last 15 years, per capita consumption of orange juice has tumbled by more than 40%, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Perhaps that’s the problem on which to really concentrate.