Higher orange juice prices on the way in wake of Irma's damage to Florida groves

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After tearing through the Caribbean, Hurricane Irma piled through the heart of Florida's citrus growing region, completely destroying some groves, and causing damage that will not only send prices higher, but also possibly threaten the health of the entire industry.

In his address to the Florida Department of Citrus late last week, the state's agriculture commissioner, Adam Putnam, put a brave face on what growers are dealing with.

"It has decimated our industry. The path of this storm could not have been any worse for Florida agriculture and Florida citrus specifically. But we're tougher than that storm. And Florida citrus will pick up, replant and move on, " Putnam said.

70-100% crop loss

He said some operations in Southwest Florida suffered anywhere from 70 per cent to 100 per cent crop loss. 

"There are adjusters on the ground right now writing 100 per cent losses. There are groves still under water. Carpets of rotting fruit, mature trees entirely defoliated," he said, adding that now, a week later, the damage continues to be done as heat and sun on exposed citrus tree roots threaten their recovery.

He said with the total crop loss in some areas of the state, Florida's citrus industry will definitely need federal help to rebuild.

The plight of Florida's farmers will be felt up here says Atif Kubursi, professor emeritus of economics at McMaster University in Hamilton. Irma's wrath couldn't have come at a worse time, he adds.

"This is the time when the crop is about to bear -- September and October are the two months when some of the citrus fruit would be at their prime," he said. And he added, unlike some crops, such as strawberries, citrus fruit has only one growing season.

Canada drinks a lot of Florida juice

Huge crop losses could mean big price hikes for Canadians for products like orange juice, predicts Kubursi, more so than other produce imported from Florida. According to the Florida Citrus Mutual, Canada is the main destination for the state's orange exports.

"The story around the citrus fruit is very unique. Other fruits and vegetables we can make up for it here: carrots and tomatoes. They are producing tomatoes as far north as Kirkland Lake in hot houses where they draw thermal energy from the earth," he says. "When it comes to citrus fruits, our weather and soil is not suitable."

That's not to say that Florida is the only citrus supplier .Brazil, Costa Rica and Mexico are also big sources. But they have also faced challenges. Mexico's producers are recovering from Hurricane Katia and last week's earthquake.

It all adds up to bad news for citrus juice lovers, says Kubursi, who estimates 90 per cent of the fruit from citrus groves in Southwest and Central Florida are used for juice — which Canada typically imports.

"Pure economics tell you that if you have something in short supply, the price will rise. The extent to which it will rise depends on three factors. First, the extent to which the supply has been knocked out,. The second is the extent to which it can be replaced, say from Brazil or Mexico. Mexico and other places are really in trouble. And the third one is the extent to which people are going to go without," he says.

Consumers may decide to go without

Consumers choosing the "go without" option is a big concern to Florida's citrus industry. There are some indications that orange juice consumption is trending downward due to health and lifestyle changes, such as concern over consuming too much sugar.

Its popularity with consumers has been sliding since a peak in the late-1990s, according to the U.S Department of Agriculture. And a price hike could turn even more people off.

"People may turn to apple juice, which is produced in many regions of Canada," says Kubursi.

Hurricane Irma is just the latest challenge to Florida's citrus industry. Growers have been battling a disease called citrus greening for more than a decade. The disease causes deformities in the fruit and also leaves them bitter tasting. 

Growers had been optimistic that this year's crop would mark a comeback year for the citrus industry. But that all changed when Irma hit.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will issue a report on the extent of damage to the Florida's citrus industry next month.