Agriculture 101: Oranges

Oranges are a staple of the produce section, but how much do you know about how they are grown and harvested? Let’s dive into the agricultural story behind this popular tropical fruit. 

Oranges are a perennial tree fruit grown in tropical and sub-tropical climates. Brazil is the top orange-producing country, growing about 30% of the world’s supply. In the United States, oranges are grown commercially in Florida, California, Texas, and Arizona. Florida and California dominate, producing 55% and 44% of the country’s oranges, respectively, in the 2019-2020 season.  

Orange production in California and Florida are very different though. Over 95% of Florida’s oranges are processed into juice, and 80% of California’s oranges are sold to eat fresh. Why is this? It comes down to geography and climate. California’s dry heat is favorable for growing oranges with a sweet flavor and a thick peel that holds up well during storage and transportation. California’s mountains also create natural windbreaks that protect the fruit from wind damage. Florida’s ocean breezes and humidity, on the other hand, produce very juicy oranges that have a thinner skin and less pleasing appearance. 

While there are several types of oranges grown commercially, navel oranges are most commonly grown for fresh consumption because they are sweet, easy-to-peel, and seedless. Their seedlessness is a result of a genetic mutation and can only be propagated via cuttings since the fruit is sterile.   

Orange groves are laid out in rows to maximize space, sun penetration, and harvest efficiency.  Herbicide is applied under the planted tree to reduce competition for water and nutrients. The area between the rows is mowed as needed.

Oranges do not continue to ripen after they are picked, so growers must closely monitor the crop to ensure they are harvested at peak maturity.  Oranges picked too soon are not as sweet.  Oranges picked too late will quickly become soft and loose their sweetness.  Fruit size and color are helpful factors in monitoring maturity, but commercial growers also utilize internal assessment to decide when a section of an orange grove is ready to harvest.  A sample of fruit is taken and tested for its juice, sugar, and acid content.

Once the oranges are ripe, workers carefully handpick the fruit and place it in large canvas bags. The bags are then placed into specialized vehicles that bring the harvested fruit from the grove to roadside tractor-trailers. Oranges grown for fresh consumption are hauled to packinghouses to be washed, graded, and packed. Oranges produced for juice are transported by truck to processing plants for juice extraction. Check out this video to see an orange harvest an action. 

That’s the agricultural story of oranges! What other crop or animal product would you like to learn more about in an Ag 101 post?


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