NORTH FORT MYERS — It was a year of conflicting returns for Florida citrus growers.
Market prices were high and yields were strong in 2011-12 for the second consecutive year.
Even so, the costs of production for growers continued to rise because of price hikes for fertilizers and chemicals, and the need to purchase sprays to fight citrus greening, which damages and kills crops.
"Costs are the No. 1 problem for all of us, big or small," said Wayne Godwin, a citrus grower from Lake Placid. "But, on the other hand, pricing has been very favorable, so the overall outlook is still pretty positive."
Growers from around the state spent Tuesday and Wednesday reflecting on the challenges facing the industry at the Citrus Expo at the Lee Civic Center in North Fort Myers. They also outlined strategies for boosting consumer demand for an industry that contributes $3 billion annually to the state's economy.
In the first four months of 2012, orange juice sales fell 11.2 to 15.5 percent per month, according to a recent Florida Department of Citrus report. But there have been improvements, with sales increasing one or two percentage points during the last three months.
"We lost relevance with consumers and now we're starting to regain it," said Bob Norberg, a deputy executive director at the Bartow-based Citrus Department.
"Florida can regain market share if we produce more. We need the growers to be excited about replanting and getting levels back up to where they were about 10 years ago."
In 2001, Florida produced 230 million boxes of oranges and this year the state produced 145 million boxes, 90 percent of which is sent to juice plants.
The price per box of oranges this year was $6.83 compared to $3.47 in 2001-02.
Less availability means higher prices and that discourages people from buying orange juice, but that is countered by the fact that when growers produce too much, prices generally drop. The key is prices for their crop to remain high enough to augment the costs of production while not driving away consumers.
Norberg spoke to a group of around 300 citrus growers and industry leaders at the Expo on Wednesday about how to increase future demand for orange juice and his strategy was a simple one: inundate consumers with advertising through social media, websites and media partnerships.
New advertisements for Florida OJ have appeared on the television show "Entertainment Tonight," ESPN, the youthful website FunnyorDie.com, and in promos for the latest movie installment of "Ice Age."
"What we're doing is targeting a little younger audience," Norberg said. "We know they'll be our consumers of the future. We have to reach them with different methods like social media and commercials that are a little more light-hearted."
Godwin, who has been growing oranges for more than three decades, said growers need to embrace the latest methods available for reaching the consumer.
"Advertising is the key, and it always will be," Godwin said. "We're in the age of Twitter and all of those things that a lot of us only know a little about. But things like Facebook are the future and embracing it is the only way we are going to survive."