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Sour Outlook for Florida's Oranges

Hurricanes, diseases and other adversities have some predicting a paltry citrus season.

October 05, 2006|Travis Reed | The Associated Press

ORLANDO, Fla. — It's getting hard to grow oranges in the Sunshine State.

Months-long droughts are broken by nasty hurricane seasons. Three diseases that kill and damage citrus trees and fruit continue to spread. Urban sprawl is taking over groves, and there are fewer acres of trees than at any time since 1988, when a wave of freezes crippled the industry.

Growers will pick the harvest's first fruit this month, but some have already declared that Florida is in for a rotten citrus season. Future-delivery juice contracts in New York have reached record highs, and if the worst predictions of a crop shortage come true, the cost to customers will follow suit.

Orange juice retail prices are already up 8% this year from last, and consumers have already responded by buying less (a 7% dip in gallons sold). The state is second only to Brazil in global orange juice production and accounts for more than 90% of all juice consumed in America.

"We're just sitting here working as hard as we can to keep our head above water with all of the adversities that've been thrown our way," said Philip C. "Flip" Gates Jr., vice president of Kanawha Groves in Fort Pierce, Fla.

Until hurricane season ends Nov. 30 and the potential for a winter freeze passes in the spring, no one can venture more than an educated guess about how many oranges Florida will produce this season. And the predictions have varied wildly.

Two respected Florida-based analysts using mathematical formulas and sampling techniques reached two quite different conclusions. Kissimmee-based Citrus Consulting International put the orange harvest at 123 million boxes, a number the state hasn't fallen to since the unusual freezes two decades ago. Winter Garden-based Louis Dreyfus Citrus put the figure at 160 million boxes of oranges, each of which weighs 90 pounds.

Both forecasts fall well short of the 220-million-box Florida average before hurricanes whipped through in 2004 and 2005, but the high end would still better last season's 150-million-box haul.

Elizabeth Steger, Citrus Consulting's founder, attributed the difference to low numbers of fruit per tree.

"We have several live trees with no fruit," Steger wrote in an e-mail. "It was obvious to me that we had a smaller crop. I believe the last two hurricane seasons impacted the older tree production."

The Florida Citrus Commission, citing an unscientific poll of its 12 members from various regions, is more optimistic, predicting 167 million boxes. That would be a reasonable recovery for growers feeling the squeeze.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's official projection, based on an extrapolation of its citrus tree count, doesn't come out until Oct. 12.

But the tree census, released last month, amounted to more bad news. The USDA determined that Florida had 621,373 acres of citrus, a 17% drop from two years ago. A main contributor was a failed public policy that mandated the destruction of all trees within 1,900 feet of one testing positive for canker, a disease that causes fruit to blemish and drop prematurely.

Eight million commercial orange trees were destroyed over 10 years before the program was abandoned in January, when officials determined that cutting them down could not prevent the disease's spread because hurricane winds already blew it all over Florida.

Bob Terry, an administrator at the USDA's Florida field office, said the canker push was the single greatest cause of tree loss.

But worsening it, he said, were "land values shooting really, really high and groves being sold for developments," as growers cash out and leave orange land behind.

Despite all the troubles, the $9-billion-a-year Florida citrus industry can still rebound. Steger said the state might be in a low production cycle of the sort that comes every four to six years.

"We had a record number of fruit per tree in the last few seasons, and it was time for another low-production crop," she wrote.

Growers are trying to remain optimistic. Doug Bournique, executive vice president and general manager of Indian River Citrus League, said the oranges grown in his region offered better size and sugar content this season than in recent years.

"All of the parameters that you gauge quality by, and appearance, are top-drawer this year, really exceptional," he said.

Bournique, however, knows that nothing is certain in this industry. Things appeared all right last year too, until Hurricane Wilma tore across South Florida at the end of October -- a late run for Atlantic storms.

"We were set up for a decent season then -- and, boom, 70% of the fruit in St. Lucie and 80% in Martin County were on the ground," he said.

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