It's the time of year when Pamela Martin sees more than gingerbread cookies, candy canes and Christmas wreaths. She also has visions of boxes filled with Florida oranges, tangerines and grapefruit.
At a processing center just west of Orlando, Martin watched over more than 100 busy workers as they loaded thousands of cartons of gift fruit from Florida growers into trucks to deliver to frigid spots across North America — from Washington to Massachusetts — just in time for the holidays.
"This is our busiest time of year, by far," said Martin, executive vice president of Florida Gift Fruit Shippers Association, which sends out the neatly assembled boxes of fruits for its 36 grower-packer members from its facility near Kirkman Road and Colonial Drive. "There's long been an appeal — and a tradition — with giving fruit for Christmas."
This holiday season should be extra sweeter for Florida citrus growers and the association after a sour 2017 season.
According to a newly released U.S. Department of Agriculture report, Florida citrus production this year is forecast to be considerably higher — as much as 71 percent for oranges — from 2017, when many of the state's fruit trees were devastated by Hurricane Irma.
Citrus is measured in boxes, and the agriculture department forecasts orange production this season at 77 million boxes, or 3.47 million tons. It also predicts 6.4 million boxes of Florida grapefruit, up about 65 percent from last season.
However, the state's overall orange production is expected to be lower compared to years ago as growers continue to struggle with citrus greening, a disease that causes trees to produce fruits that are green, misshapen and bitter.
By comparison, Florida produced about 165 million boxes of oranges and 23 million boxes of grapefruit a decade ago.
Gift fruit production now amounts to about 1 percent of the total fruit production in Florida. It's estimated that 740,000 boxes of Florida citrus — including oranges, grapefruit and specialty fruit — will be used as gift fruit in 2018-19, a 22 percent increase from last season, according to the state Department of Citrus.
Even so, that's still far less than the 1.6 million boxes of gift fruit produced in 2014-15.
This year, the Florida Gift Fruit Association estimates it will ship out about 300,000 gift cartons, a slight increase from last year. However, the association handled nearly double that number of gift cartons in 2008 and 1.6 million cartons in the 1987-88 season, when it had 100 members.
Besides greening, growers also attribute the drop in gift fruit cartons to higher shipping costs — including annual rate increases from the large delivery companies such as FedEx, UPS and the U.S. Postal Service. A gift fruit box filled with navel oranges, ruby red grapefruits, marmalade, chocolates and other sweets can weigh several pounds, adding to the shipping price.
But it's not over after the holiday season for Martin and the rest of the workers at the Florida Gift Fruit Shippers Association. The peak of Florida's citrus season runs from November through May. And the popular honeybell oranges are usually picked in January, months after customers have put their names on growers' waiting lists.
Debbie Lang of Sun Country Groves in Lake Alfred said her family's business has been shipping out gift fruit since the early 1950s.
"It's a gift that people give that makes the entire family out of state happy," she said. "It's right off the tree. It's fresh. And it tastes great."