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Florida citrus crop among worst in decade

For the second straight season, late-maturing oranges in hurricane-ravaged areas will leave Florida with one of its worst citrus crops in more than a decade.
/ Source: The Associated Press

For the second straight season, late-maturing oranges in hurricane-ravaged areas will leave Florida with one of its worst citrus crops in more than a decade, federal agriculture officials said Wednesday.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture again reduced its forecast, now projecting Florida will produce 151 million boxes of oranges, a third less than recent pre-storm seasons but slightly better than last season’s 149 million boxes. Each box contains 90 pounds of fruit.

The good news for farmers is the low production has kept orange juice prices high. An estimated 90 percent of Florida’s oranges are squeezed into juice, while the rest are boxed up and sold fresh. Florida produces 75 percent of all oranges in the United States.

Price hike unlikely, analyst says

Alaron Trading analyst Boyd Cruel said the updated forecast wouldn’t likely change juice prices for the next few months because investors were already expecting a smaller crop. In fact, he said most predicted the forecast would be cut by 6 million boxes, instead of 2 million as announced Wednesday.

Cruel said more important news would come next month, when processors lay out expectations for the next season.

The federal report also noted concerns from industry advocacy groups that labor shortages were leaving fruit on the trees as late harvesting of Valencia oranges continues into this month. With the season officially over, many of the migrant workers have moved on to other crops, the report said.

‘Down to the 11th hour’
“In state of Florida we’re right down to the 11th hour,” said Mike Sparks, head of Florida Citrus Mutual, the state’s largest grower’s advocacy group.

Ben Norris, a southwest Florida grower with about 1,000 acres, said he was able to get Valencias harvested, but it cost him 50 percent more in some places.

“When you have problems like this at the end of this year, what’s it going to be like as we start this next crop?” Norris said. “One year tends to lead to next. It gets a little tougher every year.”

Florida’s grapefruit forecast was unchanged at 19 million boxes, but it still is near historic lows. Excluding last season’s storm-ravaged crop, production hasn’t been lower since the 1941-42 season, the Agriculture Department said.

The future may be just as bleak.

Florida’s $9 billion citrus industry has been battered by two seasons of devastating hurricanes that ruined crops. The industry is also battling diseases like canker and greening, which harm trees and demand expensive chemical sprays.

As production costs increase, so have land values, leaving growers with a hard decision: take a big payout for their land from a developer or remain in an increasingly less profitable industry.

Growers are also coping with new U.S. government quarantines on fresh fruit shipments to other citrus-producing states aimed to keep diseases from spreading.