MANATEE -- About six years ago, Schroeder Manatee Ranch, one of Manatee County's largest citrus growers, enjoyed a yield of 800 or 900 boxes of Valencia oranges per each of its 960 acres.
An onslaught of greening, the citrus plant disease, and a tiny brown insect called a citrus psyllid that spreads greening when it feeds on citrus, dropped SMR's yield to 300 boxes per acre this year.
Even that deep drop was above average considering what the rest of the state did.
"When I called the Peace River Valley Citrus Growers Association and told them I was getting 300 boxes they told me that was good," Gary Bradshaw, president of SMR Farms, said Friday. "Some growers were reporting 150 to 200 boxes."
In fact, The U.S. Department of Agriculture's initial forecast has pegged the 2015-2016 Florida orange crop at 80 million boxes, down 17 percent from last season, the Associated Press reported Friday.
The USDA estimated early-mid varieties at 40 million, down from 47.4 million at the end of last season, while the Valencia orange total is 40 million boxes compared to 49.3 million in 2014-15, the report states.
"The good news is that there are 18 new variety of citrus trees which are showing a tolerance to greening and producing longer," Bradshaw said. "The downside is that there are not a lot of the new trees out there yet. But some growers are pushing their current trees over and replanting. Many believe the best thing is to put in a new tree that is more greening resistant."
The USDA usually makes its initial estimate in October of each year and revises it monthly as the crop takes shape until the end of the season in July.
"We expected the estimate to be lower than the prior year so this really isn't too much of a surprise," said Michael W. Sparks, executive vice president and chief executive officer of Florida Citrus Mutual. "We are in a challenging time right now with severe disease pressure but Florida growers continue to be the best producers in the world."
"The key going forward is to keep existing trees productive and get new trees in the ground so we can rebuild our production base while maintaining the current infrastructure," Sparks said.
The estimate of the 2015-2016 Florida grapefruit crop is 12.3 million boxes. Specialty fruit checked in at 2.2 million boxes. The yield for frozen concentrate orange juice is 1.61 gallons per 90-pound box.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter@RichardDymond.