February 9, 2010

Florida Citrus Estimates Reflect Freeze Damage

By Doug Ohlemeier
A month after freezes swept through Florida fruit and vegetable production areas, the U.S. Department of Agriculture gave a positive prognosis to grapefruit and orange crops, although volumes are lower than earlier estimates.

A Feb. 9 monthly citrus production report from the USDA shows lower orange, grapefruit and tangerine movement. Tangerines and grapefruit each lost 700,000 equivalent boxes from January to February with honey tangerines sustaining a 26% loss and grapefruit down 3.6% nearly a month after the freeze. Even with the sharp decline in tangerines, however, the USDA forecasts tangerine production to be 4% higher than last season. The USDA also lowered projected volume of Florida mid-season and valencia oranges by 6 million cartons.

In late January, Florida Agricultural Statistics Service surveyors assessed fruit and leaf damage in unharvested groves, cutting and scoring fruit for damages. “Over 50% of the fruit that we checked had no apparent damage,” said Jeff Geuder, the Orlando-based agriculture statistics’ agency director. “But some had damage all the way into the center cut.” In freeze-damaged groves, the agency said it assumed remaining fruit would increasingly dry out and exhibit damage that progresses towards the center of the fruit.

The agency plans to conduct additional assessments Feb. 15-16 and in early March. Candi Erick, the agency’s administrator, said the abnormal cold, which hit the state Jan. 3-12, slowed sizing and growth and caused smaller sizes in honey tangerines, with some fruit dropping from trees. “Last year we saw the same thing happen after the cold weather,” she said. “The growth rate really slowed and fruit did not continue to size as expected.”

Al Finch, vice president of sales and marketing for Diversified Citrus Marketing, Lake Hamilton, Fla., the marketing arm of the Dundee Citrus Growers Association, said the freeze damaged its honey tangerines and cut volume. “There was some freeze damage in grapefruit as well as mid-season oranges, but overall, we came out fine from the freeze,” he said Feb. 9. “If the freeze hadn’t happened, we would have had a bigger honey tangerine crop than last year. It should be more similar to last year’s crop going into early April.” Finch said he expects adequate volume to match increased retailer interest in bagged citrus for March and April promotions.

The USDA attributed the decrease in grapefruit production to lower January growth rates and reported slower growth rates and droppage in the orange crop. Valencias sizes have been smaller than average, according to the USDA. The state’s mid-season varieties normally end in February when the late-season valencias harvest begins, running through June.

Despite the expected lower production, Mike Sparks, executive vice president and chief executive officer of Lakeland-based Florida Citrus Mutual, said he expects the state to produce another quality crop. “We are definitely seeing the effects of the prolonged freeze we experienced in January,” he said in a news release. “As a whole, the industry came through in decent shape; we did have frozen fruit and leaf damage across most of the growing regions and this report reflects that.”

Florida orange production ships primarily to processing with 4% — 7 million cartons — last season selling to fresh channels. Though 57% (4 million cartons) of the state’s tangerines normally go fresh, 70% of the deal last year shipped fresh. About 41% or 10 million cartons of Florida’s grapefruit normally ships fresh.

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