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Florida’s Citrus Forecast Not Looking Too Sour

Florida’s citrus crop is down but has so far weathered the latest bacterial scare better than expected, state agricultural officials announced Friday following the release of a much awaited federal crop forecast.

The current year crop of oranges, grapefruit and other specialty fruit is expected to be off 14.5 percent from last year, but officials say that was actually good news because it shows the industry’s latest menace – citrus greening - may not be taking such a bite out of the state’s largest cash crop.

Overall production is expected to fall by 27.4 million boxes for the 2009/2010 growing season but will still produce 161.7 million boxes of citrus.

The decline immediately resulted in futures trading higher Friday but is not expected to dramatically increase the cost to consumers, state economists said in a conference call following the release of the U.S. Department of Agriculture forecast.

“From a broad perspective, we will in Florida continue to produce plenty of high quality citrus and juice for our consumers in the U.S. and international markets,” said Ken Keck, executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus. “To put this in perspective, just over a year and a half ago we believed that greening would ultimately devastate the industry.”

Drought and freezes –not greening – appear to have been the biggest culprit in the lower production.

Instead of massive reductions, the number of trees in production dropped to 74.1 million, a modest 1.7 percent decrease from a year ago. It’s a far cry for the double digit drops that occurred following the 2004 and 2005 hurricane season and the state’s unsuccessful attempt to eradicate citrus canker, another industry foe, by burning tens of thousands of trees.

“Greening is not necessarily tearing through the industry,” Keck said. “It certainly is a problem and one that is being addressed but we don’t see greening as the reason for this lower number.”

Orange production, the mainstay of Florida’s citrus industry, fell 16 percent to 136 million boxes, each of which weighs 90 pounds. The forecast was well received by the industry.

“This is a solid number for Florida citrus growers,” said Michael W. Sparks, executive VP/CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual. “At 136 million boxes we suspect the prices growers get for their fruit will increase and that’s crucial to cover high production costs as they continue to battle serious diseases such as greening and canker.”

The USDA predicts Florida will harvest 19.8 million boxes of grapefruit, down 9 percent from 21.7 million last season. For Florida specialty fruit, the USDA predicts 1 million boxes of tangelos and 4.9 million boxes of tangerines.

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