October 13, 2007 in Business

Florida’s orange crop making rebound, feds say

Travis Reed Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Mark Wheeler, left, and Anthony Pascher, right, both of Wheeler Farms in Lake Placid, Fla., and area citrus farmers write down the numbers from a broadcast of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s initial 2007-08 citrus crop forecast Friday in Bartow, Fla.Associated Press
(Full-size photo)

BARTOW, Fla. – Florida will rebound from a bad citrus crop last season with a 30 percent increase in orange production this year, the federal government predicted Friday. But major orange juice makers said consumers shouldn’t expect prices to fall.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture orange forecast for Florida is 168 million boxes, each of which weighs 90 pounds. Last year, the state hauled just 129 million boxes, its worst season since devastating freezes in the 1980s.

Florida is by far the nation’s leading citrus producer, but crop diseases, hurricanes and drought have crippled production the past few years. The state’s $9 billion industry routinely produced more than 200 million boxes from 1999 until 2004.

Bob Terry, citrus statistics administrator at the USDA field office in Orlando, said some areas had 50 percent more fruit on the trees than last year.

“I think we’re very pleased,” said Mike Sparks, head of Florida Citrus Mutual, the state’s largest grower advocacy group. “I think this is just the right combination. It wasn’t way too high – that would push the returns down. It’s certainly not too low.”

Florida’s orange shortage, worsened by California freezes that devastated the nation’s second-leading producer, pushed orange juice prices to record highs.

Sparks said the forecast meant plenty of orange juice for store shelves, but Tropicana said the increased supply wouldn’t mean lower consumer prices. Tropicana, owned by PepsiCo Inc. of Purchase, N.Y., said longer-term projections still show shrinking crops. The company buys about 40 percent of all oranges grown in Florida.

“While today’s estimate represents a slight increase in the Florida crop, the estimate is below what was projected and well below pre-hurricane levels,” the statement said. “We expect supply and cost pressures to remain.”

Ray Crockett, a spokesman for Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Co., which owns the Minute Maid label, said it was too early to tell how prices could change.

“We have predictions for crop size larger than last year, but we have no way of knowing what the actual inventory will be,” Crockett said.

Some growers are finally getting back to pre-hurricane levels. Bob Stallings, a crop insurer and grove owner in central Florida, said he lost thousands of trees.

“We were hit here by Charley, Frances, Jeanne – all of them affected the crop,” he said. “And this year we probably have recovered. We’ll be back to where we were the year before the storms hit.”

Stallings’ operation may be recovered, but the state is not. He is one of few to have so far escaped citrus canker, a wind-born bacteria harmless to humans that renders fruit unusable. The disease previously required the destruction of all trees within 1,900 feet of one testing positive, and has since forced growers and haulers into costly and time-consuming new harvest and shipping procedures.

Of even more concern is greening, an insect-spread disease that kills trees. In just two years since its detection, greening has already spread into most of the state’s top citrus-growing areas.

Fighting disease and replanting acres lost to storms are squeezing profits, but growers have been able to keep up because the shortage also boosted their returns.

“The numbers are kind of good in a way – hopefully it’ll keep prices up, keep some stability and everything,” Stallings said. “With those higher input costs, as a grower we’ve got to make money too.”

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