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Large fruit, large crop, large smiles for Florida citrus growers this season

by Chip Carter | December 01, 2011

It has been years since Florida citrus growers have had fruit as large as this season’s. As a bonus, Florida oranges, grapefruits and tangerines are exceptionally sweet and more cosmetically appealing than normal, and the overall crop size is larger as well. The unexpected bounty comes from an unlikely source: the bitter freezes that put a crimp in last year’s crop.

“It’s definitely larger than it’s been for many years,” said David Mixon, chief marketing officer for Seald Sweet International in Vero Beach, FL. “Actually, for the startup of the season, it’s not just strange, it’s extra strange. Honestly, right up until the day we started harvesting, we still didn’t believe our eyes until we started running fruit. What we had was an exceptionally good growing season, a good bloom period, a lot of fruit pushed a real strong bloom after the freezes of last year. The only disadvantage might be Europe has a tendency to want to buy smaller sizes, which has always been a positive before. This year, we do have demand exceeding supplies in Europe simply because of the lack of sizes they want in certain varieties.”

John van Duivenbode of Juniorfruit in Rotterdam, Netherlands, said that demand for Florida product will remain high overseas due to taste preferences over size requirements. Though cheaper fruit is available to Europe from Turkey, Israel, Egypt and even Cuba, “the taste of the [Florida] fruit can’t be equaled.” Mr. van Duivenbode said high production costs and the need to test for citrus canker mean “importing and marketing is getting harder,” but he expects Europeans will vie for a larger share of this year’s larger Florida crop.

Jack Cain of Westlake Produce in Winter Haven, FL, said that the crop is not only large and sweet, it is also more cosmetically appealing than in typical years. “Due to timely rains and the absence of hurricanes and tropical storms, this year's citrus crop is very clean with good to above-average sizing and excellent quality. And with the continued drier weather – and a few shots of colder nights -- we anticipate exterior and interior quality to continue to improve as well as eating profile. Early demand has been good, and the quality and the size we have been able to deliver has fit the demand. Going forward, we see good demand on Sunburst tangerines and Navels through the holidays, and we have seen a resurgence of interest in the Cara Cara Navels, formerly marketed as Red Navels, due to increased marketing efforts and the maturity of the trees yielding better eating fruit.”

Said Kevin Swords, Florida citrus sales manager for DNE World Fruit Sales of Ft. Pierce, FL, “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.”

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 U.S. Department of Agriculture projects that Florida growers will produce 147 million boxes of oranges in the 2011-12 season, a 5-percent increase over 2010-11. Early and midseason varieties will make up about half the crop – 74 million boxes – while Valencias will tally 73 million boxes. The USDA predicts 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 4-percent decrease from 2010-11.

Florida citrus growers have their collective fingers crossed that the excellent weather will hold and that this winter will be more like a typical Sunshine State winter, without the hard freezes that have marred the last two seasons.

“Let’s hope we don’t get into our ‘normal’ December freeze -- the last two years, that’s been more normal than not,” Mr. Mixon said. “We’ve got probably the finest crop eating-wise that we’ve had in years, and I would really hate to see something take place to take away from that.”