As coronavirus pandemic spikes orange juice sales, a Florida citrus grower gets squeezed
LaBelle, Fla. – George Winslow’s sprawling Valencia grove stands miles from any paved road, bathed in sunshine that feeds his trees. Out here, in the broad spaces and gentle breezes, the threat of the new coronavirus feels remote.
Hands on hips, he sniffed. To him, there is no better smell than a blooming grove as morning fog lifts. “You can’t open a bottle of perfume that smells any better.”
What he smelled in late April was not that.
The scent was sickening: sweetness spoiled, work wasted and $1 million of uninsurable loss. Before mounds of fallen oranges, maroon and mummifying, he felt a wave of fresh pain.
His chest tightened, a pressure that has led to a daily aspirin habit. His head hurt. His stomach knotted. “It’s just like being hit in the gut or worse.”
Typically, the aroma of oranges holds an iconic Florida promise of sunshine and health, and wealth that can be poured into a glass.
Winslow had been up since 4 and was on his second mug of coffee before sunrise. He had seen this coming since early March. He needed to harvest and haul this crop to the processing plant before the fruit dropped and went to waste. Because he is at the mercy of the plant schedule, there was no use harvesting if he didn’t have a place to send his crop. Oranges don’t sit around after harvest.
He called and texted the processing officials that squeeze his Valencia oranges into juice.
“Look, we need to harvest more. Can you help me?”
“Well, maybe next week.”
Winslow suspected coronavirus-related precautions were a culprit. Processors say that’s not the case, that they’re running at full tilt to quench a pandemic-spurred thirst for Vitamin C.
The waiting was like water torture to Winslow.
Each day more oranges fell.
Stay cool, George, he’d tell himself. Everything’s under control.
It wasn’t. He estimated he lost half the grove to fruit drop.
Yes, there were exacerbating factors. It was hot; spring temperatures in Florida shattered records. Yes, it was dry with only traces of rain for weeks. Yes, the trees suffer from citrus greening, a serious and incurable disease that can cause them to shed fruit. But the overarching problem, as he saw it, was getting his oranges processed in time.
He shook his head at the sight of the black, rotten oranges carpeting the sandy soil beneath rows of trees. For 13 months, it was a great crop. He felt the paradox of these punches landing just as America seemingly rediscovered orange juice.
There was sunshine – literally a lot, and metaphorically some – to this morning. Though a month later than he would have liked, finally, it was harvest time.
Florida is the world’s second-largest producer of orange juice. The industry has weathered a blur of tempests. Hurricanes. Diseases. Imports. Development. Declines in consumption as sugar grew fangs in the public sphere.
The footprint of the Florida orange juice industry has shrunk in the past two decades with free falls in production and the shuttering of dozens of citrus processing plants. Only seven major plants remain, said Andrew Meadows, a spokesman for the state’s largest growers association, Florida Citrus Mutual.
This inching toward extinction matters if you like fresh orange juice. Brazil and Mexico send imports, but Florida reigns in not-from-concentrate.
And it matters if you live in the rural Florida towns where citrus means jobs. Winslow’s Valencia grove hems 5,000-strong LaBelle, a postcard of old Florida with its Spanish-moss-laced oak trees. It was first settled in the 1880s.
In any case, long-suffering citrus was overdue for a silver lining, though it came with a heavy shroud. As Americans stocked up on toilet paper and Lysol, they also grabbed juice.
Across the country, in April, retail orange juice sales shot up nearly 50% – to a total of 44 million gallons – compared with the same four-week period last year, according to data released through the Florida Department of Citrus.
To meet this surprise demand, Florida juice processors say they’re working around the clock. They point to official figures showing they’re processing oranges at a faster clip than last year.
“It’s to no one’s advantage to lollygag,” said Kristen Carlson, executive director of the Florida Citrus Processors Association. “There has been pressure for processors to take more fruit than they can process right now.”
Meadows reported no widespread processing problems. “We haven’t run out of capacity for several years, so this is a good thing for us.”
But some Valencia growers echoed similar frustrations with an inability to speed up processing.
“We’ve had canker before. We’ve had hurricanes before. We’ve had greening before, but I’ve never had this,” said Winslow, who, in his 60s, has spent more than half his life in the citrus business. “I don’t know where this goes.”
Winslow watched as Esteban Tiburcio, in boots and long sleeves, clanked up five rungs of his 12-foot silver ladder. His left leg floated from the ladder and into the air as he grabbed a few oranges and dropped them in the heavy bag slung across his back.
The 24-person crew softened the labor with cumbia music booming through a stereo and random Tarzan calls that drew laughter.
Winslow saw how Tiburcio had to rummage through branches to grab what was left. The fruit drop had made this hard job harder and less lucrative for pickers, who often come from Mexico on guest worker visas for the season.
The more they pick, the more they earn.
“Thank you,” Winslow nodded at Tiburcio. “We wish all the fruit was still on the tree. It would be better for all of us.”
By law, these workers are guaranteed at least $11.71 an hour.
The grove superintendent translated for Tiburcio, a 39-year-old father of two from Veracruz, Mexico. Tiburcio offered Winslow a nod and a smile before hustling to empty the oranges from his bag into what looked like a mini hot tub.
Winslow rubbed dusty traces of spider mites from the tree leaves.
The biggest threat to Florida citrus – citrus greening – is spread by gnat-sized Asian citrus psyllid, said Gene McAvoy, an associate director at University of Florida’s Southwest Florida Research and Education Center.
Any other problem “can represent the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back.” Annual grove maintenance costs have quadrupled in less than a decade, he said.
“You can’t be a farmer anymore and do this,” Winslow said. “You have to be a pharmacist.”
It pained Winslow, who studied plant science in college, to see his grove impaired.
“It’s like Gerber used to say, ‘Babies are our business, our only business.’ I’m a tree hugger. These are our babies, and they are hurting.”
Farming is in his DNA. He traces his heritage to the Mayflower, which carried the Pilgrim leader Edward Winslow. “They learned to plant corn with fish bones. Squanto taught us all we know.”
George Winslow was raised on a North Carolina grain farm. His father was a farmer. His father’s father was a farmer. Winslow’s three adult children are not.
He bought this grove in 1991. Here, amid his trees, Winslow saw devalued land, future debt and income gone. “The income was not to go have a party in the Bahamas. The income was to pay for labor for fertilizer for pesticides for mortgages, lease space and on and on and on.”
These worries keep him up. (“I’m up just as much as our president, but I don’t tweet.”)
Winslow plucked an orange from Tiburcio’s tub. He squeezed. The ideal juice orange should feel like a tennis ball. This fruit sucked in a bit, sponge-like. There was too much give, not enough juice, bad for his bottom line.
‘I could say welcome to Walmart, but that’s not what I want to do’
Winslow turned to see the 18-wheeler headed his way. It hauled the oranges that had been harvested so far that morning: enough for 600 90-pound boxes, 30,000 pounds of juice.
It sounds like a lot, but not when compared with the 60,000 boxes he has lost.
Winslow had been reading about pandemic-related help for farmers. The amount of assistance, he believes, should factor in acreage to account for the big-dollar losses shouldered by large growers like him. By the end of that week, he would mail 30 letters to state and federal lawmakers and leaders with that plea.
We have suffered on the wrong end of a bottleneck.
We purchased top-drawer USDA crop insurance policies only to see that they are of no help.
We urgently request your immediate assistance to keep our grove workers employed and the debts paid.
Still, Winslow is not ready to give up farming. “I could say welcome to Walmart, but that’s not what I want to do.”
Winslow paused to watch the truck roll by. He grew silent. He grabbed a camera. The moment represented the execution of a plan, a job well done. And, he feared, memories: “These may be some of the last ones I get to see.”
As many of us across America have hunkered down in our homes under safer-at-home orders, someone else has had to venture out day after day to keep the country fed.
To get the food from the farm to our tables, they continue to work – sometimes without the protections we’re told are crucial to guard against the coronavirus – to pick the oranges, slaughter the pigs, truck the goods and cook the food, so America can continue to eat.
Through an occasional series of intimate portraits in the coming weeks, USA TODAY Network journalists are shining a light on their lives and work.