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A large spring bloom and heavy summer rains should lead to a bigger Florida citrus crop this season, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Even better, growers have reported larger fruit sizes in early season varieties, welcome news after two seasons of smaller than average fruit.

Not only is Florida looking at promoting a bigger crop and larger fruit, perfect 2011 weather conditions have resulted in an early crop. Most citrus operations began harvesting in mid-October, two weeks ahead of typical seasons.

With California’s Navel crop coming late to market, that creates opportunity for Florida citrus producers to have a banner season.

“Going into the season we’re very optimistic because we got an early start, the crop’s nice, sizing looks to be up across the board on all varieties. The last couple of years that hasn’t been the case, and with California being later we were able to capitalize,” said Kevin Swords, Florida citrus sales manager for DNE World Fruit Sales in Fort Pierce, FL.

Florida growers also believe fuel costs and the trend toward locally grown produce are boosting their cause.

“Regional programs and supporting locally grown has really increased over the last few years,” said Al Finch, vice president of sales and marketing for Florida Classic Growers in Lake Hamilton, FL. “And a lot of that has to do with food miles as well. But there seems to be a big push in the retail community for supporting locally grown and we’ve seen an uptick of promotional activity in support of Florida citrus in the Southeastern United States over the last few years.”

The USDA projected that Florida growers will produce 147 million boxes of oranges in the 2011-12 season, a 5 percent increase over 2010-11. Early and mid-season varieties will make up about half the crop — 74 million boxes — while Valencias will tally 73 million boxes.

The USDA predicted that Florida will harvest 20.1 million boxes of grapefruit this season, up from 19.75 million in 2010-11. Tangerine production is estimated at 4.7 million boxes, a 1-percent increase over last season, and tangelos at 1.1 million, representing a four percent decrease from 2010-11.

The yield for from-concentrate orange juice is expected to be 1.60 gallons per 90-pound box, up from last season’s 1.586081 gallons per box — meaning, basically, that the USDA expects Florida will produce larger fruit than last year. That is welcome news for growers since citrus size from growing areas around the world has been smaller than usual for the last 12 months, and larger fruit means larger profits. The record yield for juice from concentrate is 1.672737 in the 2007-08 season.

Michael W. Sparks, executive vice president and chief executive officer of Florida Citrus Mutual, said the numbers are “not a surprise. We’ve had good rain over the summer and a large bloom in the spring so this is pretty close to what we expected. At this size, with our inventories, we would hope that the market will continue to put upward pressure on grower returns.”

Florida growers have suffered through two consecutive seasons marred by freezing weather and diseases, most notably HLB — huanglongbing, or citrus greening disease — which can destroy entire groves in two to three years. The state’s citrus producers have operated on razor-thin margins, with marketing budgets slashed to pay for disease research and crops dinged by hard freezes.

The USDA makes its initial citrus crop forecast each October then revises it monthly until the season ends in July.