Demand for citrus and citrus juice surged during the COVID-19 pandemic. File Photo courtesy of Florida Department of Citrus
ORLANDO, Fla., May 13 (UPI) -- Orange juice and citrus sales have surged during the COVID-19 pandemic, which the industry attributes mostly to consumers' desire for Vitamin C to boost immune systems.
The increasing sales mean that citrus growers were spared the disasters that many other produce growers and some dairy farms saw as restaurants closed suddenly in mid-March under pandemic restrictions.
So far, juice prices haven't jumped, but frozen orange juice futures spiked about 20 percent at one point, growers and industry sources said.
"The uptick we've seen of both fresh oranges and grapefruit sales, and for juice, has been remarkable," said Dan Richey, a grapefruit grower and president and CEO of Riverfront Packing Co. in Vero Beach, Fla., about 80 miles north of West Palm Beach.
"We attribute that to the recognition of citrus juices to boost the immune system," Richey said.
He said the boost came in mid-March, after the peak of harvest. His company saw no interruptions in the supply chain, but it did take steps to protect workers -- including social distancing in the packing plant and mask use.
"The demand for citrus is also about shelf life. People are buying things they can store for a while," Richey said. "We've seen a 60 percent uptick for citrus every week since March."
The only exception was lemons, he said, which primarily go to restaurants, bars and food-service establishments.
He said his company didn't raise prices.
"We viewed this as doing our part to help in the fight against COVID-19," Richey said.
Some orange juice sales destined for food service were lost, especially to breakfast restaurants, said Andrew Meadows, director of communications for Florida Citrus Mutual, a trade group.
"Any slack in sales to restaurants was more than offset by the growth in retail," Meadows said.
A new orange juice sales report will be released next week, and the industry expects it to show continued high demand, Meadows said.
"The processing plants here are going full steam right now. We've had high inventories, but we're hoping the spike in retail sales moved some of that," he said.
Florida's citrus industry has been reeling from the effects of greening disease and citrus canker, both of which ruin mature fruit trees. Many groves also were damaged by Hurricane Irma in 2017.
"Citrus processors struck deals with foreign growers after Irma, but we bounced back quickly in Florida and that has resulted in a lot of inventory," Meadows said.
Some orange growers hope that the processing plants pass on any of the financial benefits they have received, said Francisco Pines, who has about 2,000 acres of groves in southwest Florida. He sells to Tropicana, based in Bradenton, about 45 miles south of Tampa.
"At this point, the processor is reaping the benefit, and growers are still getting inferior prices because of cheap foreign competition where they have lower labor costs," Pines said. "I'm told they are looking into what they can do."