May 17, 2006

Florida Citrus Farms Brace for Hurricane Season

By Rene Pastor

NEW YORK -- Citrus industry executive Ben King's home in Florida was just 20 miles from where three consecutive hurricanes crisscrossed the southern U.S. state in a six-week span in 2004.

Few in Florida's $9.1-billion citrus industry thought it could get any worse that that.

Then Hurricane Wilma rampaged through southern Florida last year, a record-breaking hurricane season that also spawned hurricanes Katrina and Rita, devastated New Orleans and caused tens of billions of dollars in damage.

"We do not wish hurricanes on anyone," said King, interim executive vice president of the Florida Citrus Processors Association.

The howling winds from the powerful storms knocked oranges and grapefruits into the Florida dirt and shredded citrus groves.

They also spread citrus canker, a disease that causes the fruit to drop prematurely and slices output. A state that used to produce 240 million boxes of oranges, Florida saw production dive to an estimated 153 million boxes this season, the lowest in several years.

"You can't do anything about Mother Nature. There's just not a great deal that growers can do if they take a direct hit," King told Reuters in an interview.


Before the last two hurricane seasons, the citrus industry had been confident about bringing canker under control. That seems to be no longer the case, analysts say, and many citrus farmers appear ready to sell out to developers, turning their groves into condos.

Under state eradication rules, the land where an infected tree is found is forced to lie idle after the tree and hundreds around it are destroyed. In the meantime, despite the hurricanes, Florida real estate has gone through a major boom.

"You can't use the land and it takes several years for the citrus plant to grow back. If that is the case, an offer from these developers is pretty tempting," a broker at a trading house who follows the juice market said.

Most people in the industry say they are again bracing for the worst this year.

Early forecasts for 2006 estimate there could be five major hurricanes during the six-month season, which officially begins on June 1. Major hurricanes rank at Category 3 or higher on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane intensity and are the ones which cause the most damage.

There were 28 tropical storms in 2005, of which 15 became hurricanes with winds in excess of 74 mph (119 kph). Seven of those were major, and four reached Category 5 strength with winds over 155 mph (249 kph).

Partly on jitters over more hurricanes to come, the frozen juice market in New York recently rallied to its highest level in 14 years, with the July frozen concentrated orange juice (FCOJ) contract at the New York Board of Trade surging to a lifetime peak of 165 cents per pound.

Prices have since retreated after commodity funds took profits on their gains.

"I feel sure that the industry can survive future direct hits but I sure hope we do not have to," Jay Clark, a spokesman for the main growers group, Florida Citrus Mutual, said in a written reply to questions by Reuters.


Rick Kress, president of Southern Garden Citrus, said Hurricane Wilma destroyed 50 percent of their crop in 2005, but the company's trees appeared to have weathered the worst.

"We will deal with it," said Kress. "We will prepare our facilities to withstand the storms. You batten down the hatches. You put away the things that could become airborne."

Clark said citrus growers should make sure their equipment and buildings are prepared. Irrigation ditches should be open and flowing freely to cope with torrential rain, and employees need to be sent to safety.

"As far as the citrus trees themselves, there is really not much growers can do to prepare them. They are hardy trees and have to weather the storm on their own," he said.

"The recent hurricane events have made us all a little more aware and every June we start to feel the hair on our necks stand up each time the wind blows very hard."