December's cold weather affected Fla. oranges


Published: Tuesday, January 18, 2011 at 6:11 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 18, 2011 at 6:11 p.m.

ST. PETERSBURG - A report released Tuesday proved what the state's citrus farmers already knew: December's cold weather took a toll on oranges. But it's not yet known how that will affect juice prices.

Researchers from the United States Department of Agriculture found that the freezing and near-freezing temperatures affected one-third of Florida's early orange crop varieties and nearly half of the mideseason crop. They also discovered that 12 percent of the oranges surveyed in the northern growing region — slightly north of Orlando — suffered major damage from the cold, the most of any region surveyed.

About 90 percent of Florida's citrus fruits become juice. Experts say it's difficult to judge exactly how the cold weather will affect juice and juice prices in the coming year, especially because there are a few months left in the season and farmers can still harvest.

"There are so many factors involved," said Jeff Geuder, Florida's field office director for USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service. "There's still time to harvest the fruit that is damaged. Some will have lower juice content, and sugar content will vary."

Geuder explained that processers often blend juice from different varieties of oranges to get a specific taste. Juices that include a lot of late-season oranges, such as Valencia, may not be as affected.

According to the report, about 13 percent of the late season crop was damaged.

To conduct the study, researchers visited 240 groves, where they picked to 2 pieces of fruit from 4 trees. The researchers then made quarter-inch, half-inch and center cuts into the fruit to determine how much of each piece was damaged.

Grapefruit fared well, largely because the fruit has thicker skin and is more cold-resistant.

Last week, the USDA reduced an earlier estimate for Florida's 2010-2011 orange crop. The new forecast reduced last month's estimate by 3 million boxes to 140 million.

Jerry Neff, a branch manager at brokers Allendale in Bradenton, Fla., wasn't surprised by the report and guessed that juice prices will rise 5 percent or more, and that companies will pass the increase along to juice drinkers.

"That's going to turn off the consumers," Neff said. "They will look for alternative juices."

Citrus is a $9 billion industry in Florida and the state is second in global juice production, after Brazil.

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