July 12, 2006

USDA: Florida Citrus Production Tanks

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) - For the second straight season, late-maturing oranges in hurricane-hit 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 production forecast, now projecting that Florida will produce 151 million boxes of oranges, a third less than earlier seasons.

This season's production is expected to finish slightly better than the last year's 149 million boxes. Each box contains 90 pounds of fruit.

The report also noted concerns from industry advocacy groups that labor shortages were leaving growers with fewer workers as late harvesting of Valencia oranges continues because many migrant workers already moved on to other crops.

Florida's $9 billion citrus industry has been battered by two seasons of devastating hurricanes that ruined crops and spread a disease called canker so far that the federal government decided in January it was a lost cause to contain it. The disease is harmless to humans but makes fruit blemish and drop prematurely from trees.

The good news for farmers is the low production has kept orange juice prices high.

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. An estimated 90 percent of Florida's oranges are squeezed into juice. The state produces 75 percent of all oranges in the United States.

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.

Ben Norris, a southwest Florida grower with about 1,000 acres, said he was able to get his 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."