Across the U.S., ice waters are being served without their usual lime wheels, while lime wedges on gin cocktails are getting thin — if they’re still there at all. Bad weather, disease and crime have been ravaging Mexico’s lime crop, and because America depends almost exclusively on Mexico for its limes, domestic prices are skyrocketing.
A standard 40-lb. box of limes that would have cost a San Francisco bar manager $20 a few months ago now costs more than $120. And many of the limes in those boxes are juiceless nubs; with prices so high, Mexican growers are stripping everything they can off their trees to ship across the border, regardless of quality. Unfortunately, as one USDA Market News spokesperson says, it’s not like restaurants or grocery stores can call up Florida to get limes from domestic growers instead.
That wasn’t always the case.
Once upon a time, back in the 1940s and 1950s, there was a growing lime industry around Homestead, Fla., a town at the southern tip of the state where the humid climate is particularly suited to supporting lime trees. Unlike avocados or mangoes, limes provided year-round work for people like Craig Wheeling, a former fruit-company executive who at that time was a young man, learning the ropes on his father’s lime farm.
“In 1960,” he says, “the only game in town was really the Florida-grown limes.”
As the industry grew, so did Americans’ appetite for limes. Immigrants flooded into the country from Latin America, lands where limes are more central to cuisine, and Americans developed a taste for the fruit. Today Americans consume nearly 10 times the amount of limes they did in 1980; as the population has grown from 226 million to 317 million, a half-pound of consumption per person each year has become three.
The first natural disaster struck in 1992. Hurricane Andrew, at the time the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history, made landfall in Dade County and nearly wiped Homestead’s lime groves off the map. “The impact on lime trees was devastating,” Wheeling says. “The hurricane picked up the trees and blew out the fences and the irrigation risers, virtually destroying all the plantings of the industry.” The larger businesses with more resources replanted their trees, Wheeling says, and by 1999, “we had a fabulous year.” America’s lime industry was back, and Florida growers were printing a little American flag on each piece of fruit so consumers would know where they came from.
But during most of the 1990s, when Florida was rebuilding after the hurricane, people still wanted their margaritas and ceviche. “There was a vacuum,” says Jonathan Crane, tropical-fruit-crop specialist at the University of Florida. “Mexico stepped up their production to take advantage of the U.S. being out of the market.” As Homestead slowly regrew its groves, a Mexican industry, built on much cheaper labor and land around Veracruz, became established, with trees planted specifically for exporting their goods to the U.S.
Wheeling, who had become president at the country's biggest lime producer, still remembers seeing the next disaster hit, a quieter one but equally deadly for the industry. A disease called citrus canker appeared on a tree in the middle of the lime groves of his company, Brooks Tropicals, in 2000. At the time, Crane says, “the dogma” was that citrus canker would weaken trees to the point where they would die. The much more powerful citrus industry to the north, producing Florida’s famous oranges and grapefruit, was worried that the disease would spread to its crops, and so was the government. Because citrus canker spreads by wind and rain, an eradication program was established in 1996 to destroy all the citrus trees planted anywhere near an infected one. “The state of Florida agriculture department would order them destroyed, send in bulldozers, pile up the trees and burn them,” Wheeling says. By 2007 the industry had been wiped out again.
This time, Crane says, there was a prohibition on replanting citrus in the area for years, for fear that new trees would also get infected. Farmers turned to other crops, like avocados and vegetables. Wheeling says farmers feared a new disease would arrive, and the low costs of production in Mexico were impossible to beat. “You’re not going to get rich having your trees destroyed every 15 years or so,” he says. “Given all the risk, it was hard to justify going back in and growing them.” His business shifted to papayas, and imports from Mexico increased. Today the U.S. gets some 97% of its limes from Mexico, followed by Guatemala with a paltry 1.5%.
In other parts of the U.S., the climate isn’t as suited to supporting a lime industry, experts say, even in places where backyard growing is popular. Limes are the most “cold tender” of citrus trees, says David Karp, who has worked as a plant specialist of the University of California at Riverside. So in California, he says, “90% of the time you’d be fine, but if there’s one cold day, you lose your trees and crops die. If you’re a backyard grower, it’s no big deal.” Currently there are about 400 acres dedicated to lime-growing in the state, enough to support some local farmers' markets; by contrast, 41,000 acres of California land are dedicated to lemons. And importing limes from Hawaii isn’t worth the cost, Karp says, especially when Mexico is so close by.
The most tragic part of the Florida story may be that citrus canker wasn’t actually as harmful to lime trees as scientists thought at the time. Crane is currently helping Florida growers experiment with new plantings, having published a paper earlier this year suggesting it would be profitable to produce limes in southern Florida again, partly because of their resistance to disease. “There’s a tiny bit of lime out there,” he says. It may resurge. In the meantime, the U.S. will be beholden to other countries for wheels and wedges.