For Florida citrus crop, it's been a tough year

By Tamara Lush

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, March 2 2013 11:14 p.m. MST

Orange trees, shown in 2007 in Bartow, Fla., are ruined by cold weather and citrus greening disease.

Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Florida's citrus crop has suffered huge losses this year, with fruit falling from trees and the overall forecast declining about 10 percent, but the problems shouldn't translate to a price increase at the breakfast table — yet.

Experts and growers say warm, dry weather; too much fruit on each tree; and citrus greening disease are the likely culprits.

Some say this is the year that greening — which is caused by a fast-spreading bacteria and is also known as HLB, or, in Chinese, Huanglongbing — finally translates into crop losses. Greening is spread by insects, and there is no cure. It leaves fruit sour and unusable, and eventually kills the infected tree.

"I don't think there's any doubt that we're beginning to see the effects of citrus greening on the industry," said Adam Putnam, Florida's agriculture commissioner. "This is a situation where the state's signature agricultural commodity faces an existential threat."

Most of Florida's biggest crop, Valencia oranges, is used for juice, and because of a surplus from last year, consumer prices are not expected to increase this year.

At the beginning of the season last October, the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicted that the state's total citrus crop would yield 154 million boxes of fruit. But that forecast has been downgraded to 141 million boxes.

"The USDA has reduced the estimate three times in one season," Putnam said. "For a nonfreeze, nonhurricane year, that's extraordinary. I'm very concerned."

Florida's economy rakes in about $9 billion a year from citrus, and seasons like this one can set farmers on edge. The state's citrus harvest is about halfway over. The early-season varieties have been picked, but Valencia oranges are scheduled for harvest in the coming weeks.

"We were more than disappointed for the early fruit," said Michael Sparks, the CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual, the state's largest grower organization.

According to the Florida Citrus Mutual, the state boasts 473,000 acres of citrus groves and more than 70.6 million citrus trees. The citrus industry directly and indirectly contributes some 76,000 jobs in Florida.

About 90 percent of Florida's oranges are used for juice; by contrast, the majority of California's orange crop is sold as fresh fruit. Florida is second in the world for orange juice production, behind the country of Brazil.

Sparks said that even though lots of early fruit fell from the trees, the dropped fruit won't end up on breakfast tables.

"We do not allow that fruit to be made into juice," he said.

Sparks said a "rather significant" inventory last year will prevent price increases for consumers, but such a raise could come in later years if researchers and growers don't find a solution to the greening bacteria.

Putnam said he's asked the state Legislature to increase the research funding for treatment and cure of citrus greening by several million dollars this year.

Greening has been found in every citrus-growing county in Florida.

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