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California clears frost hurdle, Florida fights warm winter, Texas citrus deal soldiers on

This is a good year to be in the Texas citrus business. While California growers have had to tussle with sub-freezing weather, Florida farmers have tangled with the other extreme: a winter that has been a little too warm to produce perfect fruit. Meanwhile, Texas growers have had more of a walk in the park.

Still, the U.S. winter citrus deal this season is not a debacle by any means. California growers escaped major damage from the cold, though the Mandarin market will take a hit. Winter-Citrus-3Despite weather setbacks in California, the U.S. winter citrus deal is going strong. (Photo by Keith Weller, USDA/ARS)Meanwhile Floridians managed to wrestle Mother Nature to a draw and produce a crop with good quality and adequate volume.

Texas has chugged along as usual. “We started the season two weeks sooner than we did last year due to some timely rains and two minor little fronts that came through and allowed the color to come on,” said Trent Bishop of Lone Star Citrus Grower in Mission, TX. “Overall quality looks very nice, and our customers seem to agree by their repeat orders. Things are coming along nicely.”

Meanwhile, California growers staved off sub-freezing temperatures for five consecutive nights in mid-January, and those mitigation efforts — which cost $28 million according to California Citrus Mutual — were apparently largely successful.

“We’ve had some cold nights, no doubt about it, but with wind machines and water we have been able to mitigate a high percentage of the damage throughout the citrus belt,” said Shirley Batchman Mutual’s director of government affairs. “There will be some very minimal damage in oranges — and those are out on the fringe of the citrus belt or the outer rows of trees in groves — but wind machines and water were very effective. We had a decent inversion layer most nights, so it was manageable. So orange-wise, a little damage but nothing major; lemons, no or minimal damage; mandarins are a little different story. The crop is not lost, but because they’re smaller and more susceptible to cold, there’s going to be some damage but we don’t know how much at this point.”

After a week “on pins and needles,” Johnston Farms of Edison, CA, came through the cold in excellent shape.

“Our protection is running water. We don’t have any wind machines — the conditions in this area don’t really respond to wind machines very well,” said the company’s Harley Phillips. “We just ran water and it looks like we were fortunate enough to dodge a bullet. Sometimes it’s just that close. Running water might raise the temperature two degrees. Most of the time it’s only a fraction, but in this case maybe that fraction was all it took.”

Said Ms. Batchman, “We’re fine. We’re going to have a little damage but we had some large crops this year, it’s not like we lost half the crop or anything, because we haven’t. If we had this weather back on Dec. 1, we’d be having a different discussion, but the crop’s more mature now: it has more sugar, and it could tolerate the cold a lot better right now.”

As of mid-January, about three-quarters of California’s winter citrus crop was still on the tree, with harvest of popular Murcott and Tango mandarins slated to begin later this month.

In Florida, growers have been dealing with warmer-than-normal temperatures, even by Sunshine State standards.

“This past fall through the first of January has been the warmest fall and winter I can imagine,” said Al Finch, vice president of sales and marketing for Florida Classic Growers of Dundee, FL. “The Honey tangerine crop was slowed by the lack of cool weather in Florida, as they are picked for color. This should extend the availability of the Honey tangerine to March 1. The Valencia is showing a strong season, we’ve got a good supply that will be available into the summer months — the outlook is great for oranges.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture in mid-January revised its estimate of the 2012-13 Florida citrus crop, lowering projected totals by about 3 percent to 142 million boxes.

Most of the decrease was in Valencias, which declined 3 million boxes to 76 million from the USDA’s December estimate. Early-mids decreased 1 million boxes to 66 million.

“Several variables, including rainfall, disease pressure, fruit size and significant fruit drop, have made it a very tricky year for crop forecasting,” Michael W. Sparks, executive vice president and chief executive officer of Florida Citrus Mutual, said in a statement. “Fruit drop in early-mids and small sizes in Valencias are most likely the cause of this decrease.”

During the 2011-12 season, Florida produced 146.6 million boxes of oranges.

For Florida specialty fruit and grapefruit, all numbers remained the same. The USDA predicts 1.1 million boxes of tangelos and 3.8 million boxes of tangerines will be harvested, along with 18 million boxes of grapefruit.