Eating healthy may be a tad more pricey this winter, thanks in part to the effects of the near-record strength El Niño currently underway. According to the December 9th forecast released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, most major fruits and vegetables are expected to see decreased production this winter, with orange outputs statewide possibly the lowest in over 50 years. Partly to blame are the record-warm waters across parts of the Pacific Ocean, altering the jet stream and producing more cloudy, rainy days than usual. The silver lining is that despite falling output forecasts through spring, hard freezes in Florida are less common in El Niño winters, perhaps giving gardeners a reason to breathe a bit more easily.
As we first informed you earlier this fall, the Climate Prediction Center is forecasting well above normal rainfall in the state through March. Combined with temperatures that are expected to be near or below normal, this will yield reduced output of most crops that rely on Florida’s abundant sunshine during the cool season.
"Normally the El Niño winter is cooler and has more rain than a La Niña or neutral winter, and that can cause some issues with early-season plant diseases,”
This was according to Peter Spyke, owner of The Orange Shop in Citra. He’s already having to make adjustments.
“We have to spray the trees a little bit more to keep the trees clean and pretty. The amount of moisture may affect the bloom; the bloom may not be quite as uniform as in a year when it's drier."
Inconsistent blooms mean less fruit. The official USDA orange production forecast for the 2015-16 season is down 7% from just a month ago, and a whopping 48% lower than the 2012-13 season, when neutral conditions were present in the Pacific. The projected 69 million boxes would be the lowest orange output since 1962-63, when Florida’s population was just one fourth of what is is today. Other citrus such as grapefruit, tangerines and tangelos will be hit hard as well, with forecasts 35-60% below 2012-13 numbers.
Florida’s vegetables are also expected to have an off year. Research from climate scientists Dr. James W. Hansen and James W. Jones shows that tomatoes in particular do not respond well to wet winters, with yields over 25% lower in El Niño winters compared to neutral or La Niña winters. With Florida’s 47,000 farms accounting for over 60% of the United States’ winter vegetable production, these lower yields for Florida farmers mean prices are going up for consumers nationwide. Prices for tomatoes, snap beans, sweet corn and bell peppers are all typically higher following El Niño winters.
The Florida Public Radio Emergency Network continues to monitor the latest trends on the El Nino event and will provide the state with updates. You can also stay informed on any potential weather hazards this winter, such as flooding or severe weather, by downloading the new mobile app, Florida Storms. Look for it in the app store today.
Editorial Note: UF Forecaster Dan Henry contributed to this story, and has sourced his research here.