Amid a worldwide pandemic, Americans remember the health benefits Florida orange juice and fresh citrus fruit offers.
Rhuanito “Johnny” Ferrarezi, a citrus horticulture research scientist at the University of Florida Indian River Research and Education Center (IRREC), in Fort Pierce, said the state’s orange juice and fruit sales have peaked during the COVID-19 health crisis. Ferrarezi serves citrus producers with research to enhance fruit along that state’s Indian River District, a region known worldwide for peerless grapefruit. The facility is part of UF’s statewide Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, serving all of the state’s food production and natural resources industries.
“Consumers know orange juice supports immunity to colds and viruses,” said Ferrarezi, “All of the producers with whom we work report increases and even record sales for their fresh juices and fruit products sold both online and at retail stores located on their properties.”
Shelley Rossetter, assistant director of global marketing for the Florida Department of Citrus reported fresh fruit sales increased by nearly 10% for 100% orange juice mid-month in March, up from the same time in 2019. New statistics will be available at the end of April. Ferrarezi said he expects to see much higher numbers based on his communications with local growers.
At Natalie’s Orchid Island Juice Co. in Fort Pierce, a spokesperson reports soaring sales for its orange and grapefruit juice varieties. Online orders come from buyers nationwide, with the highest concentration of orders from the nation’s northeastern corner, a region hard-it by the pandemic.
The surge in fruit and juice sales comes in the last phase of the citrus production season, said Peter Chaires, executive director of the New Varieties Development and Management Corp. in Maitland, Florida.
“About 30% of the season’s crop is still on trees in groves, and it’s the best fruit of the year,” said Chaires. “The late-season crop is like candy — sweet and full of juice.” Producers who sell online are seeing increased sales, with many new buyers. Citrus sales at commercial retail grocery store sales had been growing, but those sales are now in decline as consumers made a shift to online grocery orders picked up curbside or delivered to their homes, said Chaires.
However, Ferrarezi points to a steady rise in gourmet fruit juice sales, whole fruit at outdoor produce stands, and gate-side grove stores, he said.
At Al’s Family Farms in Fort Pierce, fresh citrus sales increased at least 20% over last year’s sales, said owner Jeff Schorner. Valencia oranges, temple tangerines, and grapefruit mandarins are sold continuously and restocked.
In Vero Beach, Countryside Citrus Sales Manager Leslie Matherjones reports an average of 200 gift fruit orders shipped every week in March and early April 2020. Matherjones said online fruit orders had averaged about 10 sales for every previous March and April for as long as the store managers can remember.
“We sell fruit we grow, and for the first time locally grown vegetables, to customers that call in orders and pick them up curbside,” Matherjones said. “Our customers want to buy fresh food from a place where people are not congregating.”
Nearby, at Schacht Groves, Shopkeeper Christine Coleman helps visitors practice the 6-feet social distancing guideline.
“We see regular and new customers visit once a week, each spending from $200 to $400 every visit,” said Coleman. “Fruit shipping and orange juice sales are way up, in-store sales have multiplied. And, we are selling a wider variety of new products.”
Ferrarezi said the pandemic has changed the way customers purchase food throughout the country during the health crisis. Though he believes the medical epidemic will be controlled and managed, he believes Americans will continue to buy food that boosts their immunity to disease and overall health.
“It is well established that citrus reduces the risks of lifestyle-related diseases such as stress, heart disease, and diabetes, in addition to boosting immunity to viruses,” said Ferrarezi.
Florida grapefruit is a high value commodity in Asia and Europe. At this moment, orange juice and grapefruit is a sought-after commodity by Americans who have renewed their values in health and wellbeing, said Ferrarezi. Ferrarezi’s research is carried out in partnerships with Florida producers and aims to protect citrus from plant diseases and pest insects.
One of Ferrarezi’s partners is Alex Brown, president, and CEO of Indrio Brands, which includes Hale Groves, a Vero Beach fruit brand. Nutrition and flavor are equally important to Ferrarezi and Brown. Like Brown’s fellow producers in Fort Pierce and Vero Beach, Brown also reports remarkable sales during the pandemic.
“I can confirm that there has been a clear, positive upswing in demand. We believe that in this time of crisis, consumers have remembered the undeniable importance of fresh citrus, both in terms of taste and nutrient value,” said Brown. “Citrus is the original, life- affirming super-fruit.”