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Monster Wilma menaces Florida citrus and sugar crops

October 19, 2005

By Jane Sutton

MIAMI (Reuters) – Wilma, the record-tying 21st storm of a
harsh Atlantic hurricane season, may devastate prime citrus and
sugar crops in Florida, officials warned on Wednesday.

The Sunshine State’s $9.1 billion citrus industry is
fretting about the storm and the cane plantations in the state
also lie at risk only a year after three hurricanes in quick
succession pummeled Florida’s groves.

Wilma grew into a potentially catastrophic Category 5
hurricane with winds of nearly 175 miles per hour after swiftly
powering up in the warm waters of the northern Caribbean.

Worse, a U.S. Air Force reconnaissance plane recorded a
preliminary pressure reading Wednesday morning of 882
millibars, making it the lowest since Hurricane Gilbert
registered an 888 millibar reading in 1988.

“All the growers are watching it,” said Casey Pace, a
spokeswoman for Florida Citrus Mutual, the state’s largest
growers’ association. “We have not really begun harvesting, so
much of the crop is still on the trees, which obviously is a
concern for growers.”

Florida’s citrus industry was battered by three hurricanes
that demolished 40 percent of last year’s crop and spread the
wind-borne bacteria that cause citrus canker disease.

“Typically around this time of year we’re already starting
to harvest, but because of the hurricane impact last year and
the stress on the trees, our crop is going to be later, about a
month later, so Wilma would not be good news for us,” Pace
said.

The bigger fear is that another hurricane could spread the
canker-causing bacteria. Citrus canker does not harm humans but
disfigures the fruit and causes it to drop prematurely to the
ground.

Florida has fought for a decade to halt its spread by
burning citrus trees within 1,900 feet of an infected tree in
an eradication campaign that has already cost commercial
growers 6 percent of their trees. Regulators had hoped to
eradicate the canker by the spring of 2007.

“If we have another storm, it could spread canker around
more,” Pace said, adding, “There’s not really a whole lot you
can do.”

Commodity analyst Judy Ganes of J. Ganes Consulting said
the storm could also batter sugarcane farms in Florida.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s monthly
supply/demand report in October, Florida is the top sugar
producer in the country.

USDA forecast Florida output in the 2005/06 marketing year
(August/July) at 1.913 million short tons, up from 1.692
million short tons in 2004/05.

Damage to Florida would come hard on the heels of Hurricane
Rita lashing and flooding sugarcane fields in Louisiana, which
is second to Florida for sugar in the United States.

Cane industry officials in Louisiana said that up to 75
percent of production could be lost in areas where Rita’s surge
hit hardest. Louisiana is projected to produce 1.152 million
short tons of sugar in 2005/06, down from last season’s 1.16
million short tons.

USDA said in the same production report that Florida’s
citrus industry, which harvests three-fourths of U.S. citrus
fruit, will produce 190 million (90-lb) boxes in 2005/06.

That is up from the hurricane-hit crop of 149.6 million
boxes in 2004/05 but sharply lower from a harvest of over 240
million boxes in the previous season.

In addition, Miami is a key coffee port of the United
States. It is one of four ports receiving coffee for delivery
at the New York Board of Trade. The others are New Orleans, New
York and Houston.

NYBOT said that as of October 17, there are 498,735 bags of
coffee in Miami, with another 1,050 bags awaiting grading.

The U.S. Green Coffee Association said in its monthly
report that there are 786,597 60-kg bags of coffee in all of
Miami, the third highest stockpile behind New York and New
Orleans.

NYBOT has suspended the licenses of four warehouses in
storm-hit New Orleans because the coffee there had been damaged
by floods spawned by Hurricane Katrina when it struck the U.S.
Gulf port city in late August.

(With additional reporting by Rene Pastor in New York)




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