Citrus assessments predict larger orange crop

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HAINES CITY — Florida orange growers will see a steady-as-you-go market in 2011-12, according to two widely watched early crop forecasts.

After a profitable 2010-11 season, the state’s citrus growers would consider that as good news.

Elizabeth Steger, an Orlando citrus consultant, has forecast Florida growers will produce 142 million boxes of oranges, or 2 percent higher than last season’s crop of 139 million boxes from the final 2010-11 season estimate by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in July.

Louis Dreyfus Citrus Inc., the Winter Garden-based subsidiary of the French conglomerate, was slightly more optimistic at 146 million orange boxes, a 5 percent increase.

Growers attributed the higher crop to larger fruit sizes so far this season.

“The trees look exceptionally good,” said Dave Crumbly, vice president of fruit control at Florida’s Natural Growers in Lake Wales, a growers’ juice processing cooperative. “Because of the care growers are giving our trees, we’re holding our own.”

Crumbly was referring to the widespread adoption in Florida of “foliar nutrition” programs as a countermeasure to citrus greening, a deadly bacterial disease now rampant in the state.

The enhanced nutrition programs have been shown to counteract the harmful effects of trees with greening — primarily sour, misshapen fruit — and to boost production on healthy trees by 10 percent or more.

“The sizing (of oranges) looks good,” said Jay Clark, a Wauchula grower and Florida citrus commissioner. “Fruit size can amount to a 10 percent difference” in harvest yields.

The first official USDA forecast of the Florida citrus crop does not come out until middle October, so growers look to the Steger and Dreyfus estimates in August, based on a smaller statistical sample, for an indication of the coming market for their fruit.

The initial USDA estimate for the 2011-12 citrus crop will be released on Oct. 12.

The consensus among growers before these estimates seemed to be between 140 million and 150 million boxes of oranges. The estimates probably won’t change market strategies for juice processors, who buy 95 percent of Florida oranges, or growers looking for the optimal time to sell.

“It’s not going to cause a rush,” Crumbly said. “If you were planning to sit back and wait until October, you’ll probably still wait.”

The 800-pound gorilla that will affect Florida farm prices is the size of the 2011-12 Brazilian crop and destination for its orange juice products, Clark said.

After a severe drought lowered the orange crop in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s main growing area for juice oranges, to 273 million boxes last season, the USDA is forecasting 390 million boxes, a 43 percent increase, in 2011-12.

But based on past history, Florida citrus officials view early Brazilian numbers with skepticism.

“The big question is whether that (Brazilian) crop is there and where it will go,” Clark said, referring to how much orange juice Brazil will export to the U.S. instead of its primary market in Europe.

The drought sent inventories held by Brazilian processors down precipitously, Crumbly said, and “they’ll just be catching up.”

The drop in Brazilian OJ exports to the U.S. was a major factor in last year’s rising farm prices for Florida oranges.

Last season, Steger predicted Florida growers would produce 154 million orange boxes, or 5.5 percent higher than the initial USDA estimate and 11 percent more than its final estimate. The state’s 2010-11 orange crop was damaged by December freezes.

A year ago, Dreyfus estimated 149 million orange boxes, 2 percent above the initial USDA forecast and 7 percent higher than the final number.

In the last 12 non-hurricane seasons, Steger missed the final USDA crop total by as little as 4 percent and as much as 18 percent. Dreyfus came within 2 percent and as far off as 24 percent in those same seasons.


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