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USDA special survey shows freezes only nicked Florida citrus crop

by Chip Carter | January 17, 2011
Results of a special survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service, Florida Field Office, conducted Jan. 10-11 and released Jan. 18, show that Florida citrus survived record-shattering cold through December and early January in remarkably good shape. Most damage to fruit and trees was minor, and the majority of Florida's groves escaped the bitter winter weather intact.

USDA field researchers cut into fruit at varying depths to look for damage. About 38 percent of Florida's early- and mid-season oranges and 12 percent of its late-season oranges showed minor damage. Just 4.5 percent of early- season oranges, 6.4 percent of midseason oranges and less than 1 percent of late-season oranges had "major" damage at the center.

Twig and leaf damage was also much lighter than feared. More than 80 percent of early and mid-season varieties and more than 90 percent of late- season varieties showed no leaf damage from the freezes, according to the survey.

USDA released a revised January crop estimate Jan. 12 that showed a reduction in orange production of 3 million boxes from the original January estimate of 143 million boxes to 140 million. Most of that reduction was due to smaller fruit size than anticipated rather than to freeze losses. Results of the special survey suggest that there will be another reduction of about 3 million boxes from the actual January totals, according to industry analysts.

The Jan. 12 estimate of 140 million boxes was down 2 percent from the Dec. 1 estimate but still 5 percent above last season's totals for the same time period.

Orange juice futures closed Jan. 18 at $1.754, up 2.35 cents, and Wall Street analysts said that the price may rise as high as $1.80 in the wake of the special survey.

"While the industry as a whole came through the cold in decent shape, we did have frozen fruit and leaf damage across most of the growing regions as well as more extensive damage in a few select areas, and this report reflects that," said Michael Sparks, executive vice president and chief executive officer of Lakeland-based Florida Citrus Mutual.

Many growers salvaged the December crop for juice following the cold snaps and were readying to transition to mid-season varieties at the start of the new year. Others made it through the freezes with minimal damage.

"This has been a good season so far, actually," said Jack Cain of Westlake Produce Co. in Winter Haven, FL. "The price point has been there. And this is definitely one of the best years I've seen in terms of exterior appearance and eating quality. The thing Florida historically has struggled with is external appearance."

Mr. Cain said that Westlake's preseason estimate of 1 million cartons of citrus shipped for this season has not changed despite the USDA estimates.

Al Finch of Florida Classic Growers in Lake Hamilton, FL, said, "We seem to have fared very well through those cold nights in December. We had a tremendous first half of the season. We had good volume, good arrivals, and the demand was very good for Florida citrus, especially for Sunburst tangerines and Navels. We had a little larger crop of those, so we've been able to stretch that season into January."

In the Jan, 12 report, the USDA estimate for grapefruit remained unchanged at 19.6 million boxes. The special survey showed that grapefruit groves sustained very little damage during the freezes.

For Florida specialty fruit, the USDA's tangelo estimate was reduced by 100,000 boxes to 1 million boxes in the Jan. 12 report, while the tangerine forecast was reduced by 200,000 boxes to 4.2 million boxes. No further statistical information from the Jan. 10-11 survey regarding specialty fruit was available from USDA.