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California freeze, greening in Florida putting the squeeze on domestic winter citrus production

Freezing weather in California and another decline in projected production in Florida are putting a minor squeeze on the domestic U.S winter citrus deal. Meanwhile, rains in Texas have filled out the Lone Star State crop, which is making up for shorter supplies of smaller oranges on the West Coast.

Citrus growers across Florida dodged a series of bullets in early to mid-January as temperatures repeatedly flirted with the freezing mark as far south as Fort Myers and were predicted to do so throughout the week of Jan. 20.

Winter-Citrus-2Asian citrus psyllids clustered on a leaf. The insects spread the lethal HLB infection. (Photo courtesy of USDA)According to Florida Citrus Mutual spokesman Andrew Meadows, the Sunshine State crop “came through in good shape. No reports of damage.”

Citrus can withstand four hours of temperatures below 28 degrees. With lows in the high 20s and low 30s it was “not cold enough, long enough” to damage fruit, Meadows said.

California growers were not so fortunate. Weeks after a days-long hard freeze in December in the citrus-growing areas of Central California, growers were continuing to assess damage, but unofficial estimates put crop loss as high as 30 percent.

“We are hoping to have something by the end of this month,” Bob Blakely, director of industry relations for California Citrus Mutual in Exeter, CA, told The Produce News Jan. 6.

“We have questionnaires out now. We have people getting back to us with information. We are going to try to pin down a number within the next two or three weeks.”

Based on what was known by Jan. 20, “we are finding everything from almost no damage to complete losses in different blocks and sometimes they are not that far apart. It has really been difficult to come up with a good number,” Blakely said.

Warm temperatures since the freeze could “start exacerbating the damage” to fruit still on the tree, making it easier to cull, Blakely said.

“They inspect it as it is going across the line and they look at it again in the finished carton. So there is really a lot of effort going into keeping bad fruit off the market,” he said.

“The focus, certainly, is on keeping the quality standards high [because] the last thing that anybody in the industry wants is to get damaged fruit into the marketplace,” he added.

In Texas, three significant rains drenched the Rio Grande Valley — between September and January — welcomed relief for the parched Lone Star State.

The result has been a spectacular crop that has been able to establish its own market apart from Florida’s and even allow Texas growers to fill in gaps in the California citrus supply.

Trent Bishop, vice president of sale for Lone Star Citrus Growers in Mission, TX, noted in early January that “Texas has been able to maintain a slightly stronger market” so far this season.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen larger disparity in the markets between Florida and Texas; usually we’re completely affected by other markets,” Bishop said. “With regards to the California freeze, as of mid last week (Jan. 6) the demand on small oranges really picked up at a time of the year where usually the markets are pretty steady and stable.

“I could possibly see the 88s and smaller markets on oranges actually slowly starting to trend upwards. I believe it’s probably a result of what happened in the Central Valley — a lot of the calls coming in are from the West Coast,” Bishop said.

Though oranges represent just a quarter of the Texas crop, which is predominately red grapefruit, Bishop said “we’ll have consistent supplies right on through” the season and to the first of April.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture once again revised its Florida citrus forecast downward Jan. 10 in the wake of continuing damage from citrus greening disease, which is present in all Florida citrus-producing counties.

The forecast for the 2013-14 Florida orange crop now stands at 115 million boxes, down 5 percent from the December estimate, which had itself been revised down from early-season projections.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture traditionally makes its initial crop estimate in October of each year and revises its projections monthly as the crop takes shape until the end of the season in July. However, this season, the federal government shutdown delayed the initial estimate until Nov. 8.

The January estimate projects Florida early-mid orange varieties at 54 million boxes, down two million from December, and Valencia orange production at 61 million boxes, a decrease of four million.

During the 2012-13 season, Florida produced 133.6 million boxes of oranges.

The USDA’s estimate of the 2013-14 Florida grapefruit crop is now 16.5 million boxes, down 200,000 boxes from December.

Specialty fruit is now at 4.4 million boxes, also down 200,000 from the previous estimate. The yield for frozen concentrate orange juice (FCOJ) remained the same at 1.61 gallons per 90-pound box.

Citrus greening — also known as HLB or huanglongbing — is responsible for fruit drop that led to the lowered USDA estimates.

There is no cure for HLB, which is spread by a tiny insect, the Asian citrus psyllid. Infection of a single tree can wipe out an entire grove in two years.

Florida growers have come up with increasingly creative ways to combat HLB, from nutritional cocktails to coordinated spraying for the psyllid to keeping trees warm and only planting new stock that was raised wholly indoors.

“Once again citrus greening rears its ugly head,” said Michael W. Sparks, executive vice president and chief executive officer of Florida Citrus Mutual. “We are in an unprecedented situation dealing with this disease and (this) crop estimate only emphasizes how important it is for research to uncover a solution.”