updated 10/12/2005 8:37:23 PM ET 2005-10-13T00:37:23

Florida growers should produce 190 million boxes of oranges during the upcoming growing season, a 27 percent increase over last season’s hurricane-ravaged crop, federal agricultural officials predicted Wednesday.

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Citrus officials greeted news of the larger estimate for the 2005-2006 season with optimism tempered by concern over the spread of three diseases that could pose even a bigger threat than the hurricanes: citrus canker, citrus greening and tristeza.

Despite the larger crop size, several factors including a smaller Brazilian crop, higher energy costs and a reduction in inventories from last year’s three hurricanes could result in a price increase for orange juice in grocery stores of more than 10 cents a gallon, said Bob Norberg, director of research at the Florida Department of Citrus.

Another factor that may add to a price increase is a labor shortage caused by migrant workers going to Louisiana for construction jobs following Hurricane Katrina instead of fruit picking jobs in Florida, said Casey Pace, a spokeswoman for Florida Citrus Mutual, the state’s largest growers group.

Each box of oranges from Florida, the nation’s largest citrus producer, holds about 90 pounds of fruit. The yield for frozen concentrate orange was expected to be 1.58 gallons per box.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture also predicted that Florida would produce 24 million boxes of grapefruit, almost double the size of last year’s crop which was the smallest since the 1935-1936 season. Each box of grapefruit holds about 85 pounds of fruit.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture predicted a crop of 6 million boxes of tangerines, 1.4 million boxes of tangelos and 900,000 boxes of Temples.

Officials with PepsiCo-owned Tropicana Products, which has a 40 percent share of the orange juice market and buys one out of every three Florida oranges, said it was too early to determine the impact of the crop size on juice prices but noted the industry is below a 5-year average for the availability of juice.

“For us, the important thing is the continued pressure on supply,” Brace said.

The Florida orange crop estimate is probably 10 million boxes short of what is needed to supply the U.S. orange juice market, a difference that likely will be made up with juice from Brazil, the world’s largest orange producer, said Ellis Hunt, president of Lake Wales-based Hunt Bros., a large citrus company that owns groves and a packinghouse.

“The hurricanes have definitely had an effect,” said Hunt, who has found citrus canker in a grove. “The trees have been trying to rejuvenate themselves.”

Fruit sizes, especially for hamlin and Valencia oranges, were expected to be unusually small this season, and the number of trees used to calculate the citrus estimate was down 5 percent from last year because of diseases and hurricane damage, said Bob Terry, an official with the Florida Agricultural Statistics Service, which calculates the citrus estimate.

Diseases such as canker and tristeza are believed to have been spread around by the fierce winds from the hurricanes. Citrus canker is a bacterium that disfigures and weakens citrus trees, although it doesn’t harm humans.

There are three types of citrus tristeza virus. One is a mild strain that puts stress on the trees. The second form, “quick decline” strain, attacks trees on sour orange rootstock, killing them within years. The third attacks grapefruit and orange trees alike and chokes off fruit production.

“The tree numbers are beginning to affect orange production, not only from canker, but from other losses, tristeza particularly and storm damage,” Terry said.

The Florida Department of Citrus, which markets Florida orange juice and conducts research, will have to trim its $60 million budget by $2 million because the forecast fell a bit short of its prediction. The agency is funded by a tax on each box of citrus.

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