The Associated Press titled it “The Great Green Citrus Crisis of 2014.” It was the perfect storm of circumstances that pushed lime prices from the mid-$20 range to $80 and ultimately $130 per case. The price of all things made with lime or associated with lime suddenly escalated.
After peaking in 1985, Florida lost much of its South Florida lime production to Hurricane Andrew and the canker eradication program.
Then came HLB, its associated uncertainties, and large-volume plantings south of the border. Consequently, the American market became heavily dependent on Mexican limes. Then, in 2014, Mexican drug cartels suddenly disrupted supply chains and, with no readily available alternative supply, the marketplace immediately felt the impact. Some growers and nurseries took notice.
Florida Lime Propagation Summary
Special Appreciation to the Bureau of Citrus Budwood Registration for propagation data.
The chart above provides a snapshot of Persian lime and Key lime nursery propagations since the 2014 anomaly.
Some things to note from this chart:
- Throughout the past 12 years or so, most lime propagations went to the dooryard market — either sold directly to homeowners or moved through retail nurseries.
- The 2014-2015 to 2015-2016 spikes in Persian lime propagations in Florida were likely small-scale, opportunistic commercial plantings following the price escalations. “Citrus Nursery Source” inquiries validated approximately 100 acres of Persian limes planted in those two years, but the actual numbers may be twice as high. How many remain is unknown.
- The 2017-2018 spike in Key lime propagations is thought to be both the result of increased commercial demand (changing consumer food trends, growing Hispanic populations, and the appeal and popularity of Latin cuisine) and a shift away from Persian lime propagations due to the presence of lime blotch virus. This virus appears to impact primarily Persian limes and causes the nurseries to rouge out large numbers of young trees, driving up production costs and making it difficult to reliably fulfill orders.
- Rootstock selections for Florida limes appears to be quite varied: Swingle, Kuharske, Sour Orange, US-897, US-942, Cleopatra, C-35, X-639, Flying Dragon, Volk, and more. Interestingly, a large number of limes are grown on their own root.
Today, Florida citrus growers are making some interesting observations about limes. Many growers have lime trees either at home or in their commercial blocks for their personal use. In general, Persian limes perform better with HLB than Key limes. Persian limes come into production quickly, and those companies with experience packing and marketing Florida Persian limes indicate that the quality of Florida Persians is generally much better than what is currently available in retail stores. They have good size and much higher juice content than limes from other regions.
Growers also are noticing a difference in peel color. The warmer falls and winters seem to generate much darker and more consistent peel color in Central Florida. Such color was previously only reliably achievable in South Florida. While these same weather patterns make life difficult for orange growers, they may favor lime production.
Despite the positive developments with Persian limes, demand seems stronger for Key limes. This is certainly reflected in the propagation data.
Challenges and Questions
When recent lime plantings came into bearing, growers were faced with some significant challenges. Most lime blocks were small (5 to 15 acres), and the blocks were geographically dispersed. This made it difficult to consolidate volume and attempt a Florida summer lime program.
Likewise, the secondary juice market was not well established, likely the result of inconsistent historical supply. Further complicating the picture, harvest labor is in short supply during the summer months. None of these challenges are insurmountable, but they do not cure themselves. If there is a fresh and/or juice opportunity here, someone will need to tackle these issues.
The market remains a question for limes. Key limes may still be more of a specialty item, while Persians, barring some market differentiation for Florida quality, may have become strongly commoditized. Will consumers pay a premium for a better-quality Persian lime? Will retailers support such a program? Time will tell.
Growers would be well served to proceed cautiously and ensure that they are participating in a fully integrated program from tree to consumer before diving in headfirst. All challenges aside, it’s certainly preferable to start with a quality advantage and seek to address the other challenges than the other way around.
Finger limes are a completely separate market, and commercial consideration will be addressed in a future article. Imported and locally developed colored Finger limes will soon be available. These pose both opportunity and unique challenges. More on this soon.
New Variety Forum
New Varieties Development and Management Corporation (NVDMC) has long promoted the concept of an open forum where nurseries and growers can exchange information about varieties, production practices, and post questions and observations.
To ensure varieties are meeting the future needs for citrus growers in Florida, we’ve started an NVDMC Facebook group for discussing production practices, trials, and observations on new commercial citrus varieties and experimental selections. It also will serve as a general forum for comments, questions, and concerns among stakeholders. It was created out of a need for better coordination and discussion of what’s working and what’s not, as well as feedback on current trials and new varieties.
To join, you must have an active Facebook account profile and be a part of the commercial citrus growing industry. This is not a tool for homeowners. Log in to your Facebook account, then go to www.facebook.com/groups/nvdmc and click “join group.” For questions about the forum, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.