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Originally published Saturday, March 2, 2013 at 8:12 AM

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For Fla. citrus crop, it's been a tough year

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.

Associated Press

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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. But they could in the future.

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. A box of oranges, temples or tangelos is 90 pounds, grapefruit boxes are 85 pounds, and tangerines are 95 pounds.

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

The total impact of citrus in Florida's economy is about $9 billion a year, 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 consumers' 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. Harold Browning, chief operating officer for the Citrus Research and Development Foundation in Lake Alfred, said some trees in Florida have been infected for five or six years.

"Progressively, those trees look a little less healthy each year," he said. "The trees showing the most fruit drop are those that look the most unhealthy."

Browning said it's clear greening has played a role in the dropped fruit. But other tree stressors - such as drought - also contribute to fruit drop.

And some varieties of Florida citrus are known as "alternate bearing" crops, which means that during some years, they produce heavier crop loads. "This is a heavy crop season," Browning said.

Beyond oranges, Florida is the nation's No. 1 producer of fresh grapefruit. It's sent overseas to 24 countries, and consumers in places such as Japan love it. Last Tuesday was declared Florida Grapefruit Day in the country, kicking off a two-month media blitz for the fruit.

Much of Florida's grapefruit is grown on the state's east coast along the Indian River region. The fruit is not immune to the problems other citrus crops face. In October, the USDA estimated that the state would produce 20.2 million boxes, but by February, it downgraded the grapefruit crop forecast to 18 million boxes.

"It's been a challenging year," said Doug Bournique, the executive vice president of the Indian River Citrus League in Vero Beach. "Everybody was hopeful that the crop would be bigger. But we'll get through it, we always do. Every year is a surprise when you have your investment in a limb of a tree."

Follow Tamara Lush on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tamaralush.

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