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In early September, orange trees bloomed in some orchards in São Paulo State (SP). These flowers will become the fruits from the 2022/23 season. Cepea collaborators reported higher blooming in irrigated orchards, majorly in northern and northwestern SP.

However, citrus farmers have been concerned about the effects of the weather on flower settlement. In dryland orchards, which count exclusively on rainfall for moisture, precipitation has been insufficient to trigger blooming.

According to Somar Meteorologia (weather forecast agency), rainfall was low in the major citrus-producing regions in SP in the first half of September. Thus, while it does not rain significantly, farmers are investing in plant nutrition in order to help on fruit set.

During fruit set (after blooming), temperatures and soil and air moisture deeply influence production. However, in the last years, high temperatures and rainfall below the average were common, limiting the output, largely in non-irrigated orchards.

Climatempo (weather forecast agency) forecasts rains for the second fortnight of September, and rainfall is expected to be within the average in the month in most citrus-producing regions in Brazil, except in southern SP. On the other hand, according to NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), there is a 70 % chance that La Niña phenomena may return to Brazil until the end of 2021.

In Brazil, La Niña increases rainfall in the northeastern region and delays precipitation in the south. In southeastern BR, the scenario becomes similar to that in the southern area of the country, which concerns agents, in light of the current drought. For citrus farming, this delay may cause more damages to the 2022/23 harvest, since the coming months are critical for the development of trees, when higher moisture is needed.

BRAZILIAN MARKET IN SEPTEMBER – The demand for oranges increased in the in natura market in the first fortnight of September, favored by high temperatures and the payment of workers’ wages early in the month. As regards supply, the hot and dry weather in SP continued to limit the availability of high-quality fruits in the market (most of them are wilted and small-sized). In this scenario, prices increased.

There is a saying among those who have been in the industry for a long time: “there is no harvest like the other”. The current one is overcoming itself; such are the difficulties faced.

The first signs that the season would be different were given by last year’s bloom. Blooming in August and September 2019 was very good. However, a period with no rain in the following months accompanied by intense heat has caused an expressive fruitlet fall. The fruits developed until a 2-3 cm diameter size but were overturned by excessive heat. Rains came up in the end of October and a new flowering is expected.

The harvest season was preceded by the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. The great demand for labor, much of it coming from northeastern states in the country, concerned everyone and made us take extraordinary care to preserve the health of workers involved in the harvest and of other collaborators from other sectors of the properties.

Thus, the current harvest has been one of great surprises and has presented unusual challenges to citrus growers of the Brazilian citrus belt. The main consequences are presented below.

The period without rain, from May of this year until this last month of October, was one of the most extensive ever recorded in the state of São Paulo, according to the graphs and tables below. In addition to drought, very high maximum temperatures were recorded, even at night, causing considerable weight loss and lower fruit quality. The water deficit was very significant in all regions. This is the main reason for the significant decrease in the volume of fruit produced in the “citrus belt”. The losses are more accentuated in the north of the state of São Paulo and in the Triângulo Mineiro, warmer and drier regions.

  1. However, even further south in the state, losses were above normal. The first harvest estimate released by Fundecitrus, last May, brought an amount of 287.8 million boxes, 25% less than the previous harvest (2019/2020). What you see in the field is a volume of oranges quite below that number. The common perception among consulted technicians and citrus growers is that the final figure is expected to be below 250 million, perhaps below that.
  2. The period without rain and with temperatures well above the average resulted in extremely withered orchards – plants even died in orchards without irrigation. Another aggravating factor this year was the scarcity of water for irrigation. There are properties that have an installed irrigation structure; however, they do not have enough water available to meet the needs of the plants.
  3. The most difficult of all harvestsDue to the flowering in non-traditional months (December and January) there are a large number of “green”, not yet ripe fruits mixed with ripe fruits from the normal flowering (August-September 2019). This brings an additional difficulty to the harvesting operation that has to be carried out in at least two different times, resulting in an increase of the production cost for the citrus growers.
  4. This mix of fruits with different level of ripeness, impair the quality of the juices, especially due to the greater amount of limonin present in the green peels of oranges. On the other hand, in the northern regions of the citrus belt, the fruits are getting ripe much faster than normal, producing juices with a ratio (ratio between the amount of sugars divided to acidity) much higher than the average for the period of the year. Industrial income has been better this year than in the previous two years, at least until this time of the harvest (November 2020).
  5. As a further consequence of this year’s climate events, we will see an increase in the effects of HLB or greening. The symptoms of the disease, such as early fruit fall and low production, usually express themselves more strongly when there is a water deficit. In addition, the psilideo, vector of the disease, presented very high rates even in winter, indicating that we will have a greater number of infected plants in the next years. This has probably occurred because of the warmer climate which resulted in a very irregular or uneven plant vegetation.

What can we expect from the next crop?

The northernmost regions only flourished after the rains that fell in the last days of October. This late blooming should not have a good fruit set because they will be still small in the higher summer temperatures. Moreover, the loss of leaves was very great in the recent drought period, and this will not allow for a large amount of fruit for the next season, since the plant will not be able to provide the metabolites necessary for an expressive fruit set. A good 21/22 harvest is not to be expected for these regions.

In the most southern regions, which suffered less from water deficit, the flowering came in the normal period, between August and September. However, irregular rainfall and high winter temperatures (table 2), after flowering, have worried producers. What they see in their orchards does not indicate a good harvest for the second year in a row. My experience shows that the harvest after a year as irregular as this one is also not usually good.

The most difficult of all harvests

Price of juice should go up

Although it is common for citrus to have alternate crops, i.e., smaller crops followed by larger crops, the climatic factors presented in this article should result in two “small” crops in a row, the current and the next seasons.

Thus, Brazilian orange juice industries should process fewer oranges for two consecutive years. This reduction in supply, combined with the growing demand for juices in times of pandemic, should cause increases in the price of juices on the international market.

Mauricio Mendes
Citrus Consultant
Agriplanning Brazilian Agribusiness Company
GCONCI (Citrus Consultant Group)

Mauricio Mendes is a citrus consultant sine 1980 and Citrus grower since 1988. Has worked to major Citrus Farms in Brazil. Is COO of a 6.000 ha Citrus Farms operation in the SW od Sao Paulo State. Mauricio is also Beachead Advisor for New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (NZTE) . Also has been partner and CEO, for 14 years, of Informa FNP which is one of the most important Agribusiness consultant company in Brazil. FNP was recently acquired by IHS Markit.
Mauricio is also member of GCONCI (Citrus Farming Consultants Group) which gathers 17 Consultants. GCONCI provide direct technical assistance to over 40 million citrus plants (25 % of the Brazilian Citrus Belt)

*Araraquara and Itapetininga are major production citrus regions in São Paulo State.