Florida citrus growers slowly recover from devastating freezes. Imported fruit has kept packagers going while replanting continues

John M. Kennedy guides his truck between rows of two-year-old orange trees. On the right, he points out a year-old grove. Up the road, there's a grassy plot to be planted in the spring. ``I don't think there's any doubt that we will survive,'' he says. ``We knew it was going to be very difficult, but everyone dug in.''

Mr. Kennedy is talking about Golden Gem Growers, a cooperative of citrus growers in Lake County, Fla. But he might as well be talking about all of Lake County. Two years ago back-to-back freezes wiped out 90 percent of their groves. Once the state's second-largest producer of oranges, the county lost all but 12,000 of its 117,000 citrus acres because of the two freezes.

Growers in this important citrus-producing county are making a comeback. John Jackson, the county's agricultural extension agent, estimates county growers have replanted 15,000 acres.

The transformation is starkly laid out along Route 19, a meandering north-south highway that bisects Lake County and connects towns like Eustis, Tavares, and Howey In the Hills. In places, dead orange trees raise bare, black branches to the sky. But in other spots, leafy young specimens have taken root.

``People are going to recover and go on,'' Mr. Jackson says. One of those is Bin Harmon, president of B.G. Harmon Fruit Company.

``I'm not ready to quit,'' he says. Although the two freezes - on Christmas Day 1983 and Jan. 22, 1985 - destroyed most of his 2,000 acres of citrus, he's back up to 500 acres and is planting a grove in the Bahamas as a hedge against future Florida freezes.

For several growers, the worst freezes of the century, coming back to back, was enough to push them out of business. Some 14,000 people lost their jobs, Mr. Jackson says. Several grove-related companies went under. The economic loss: some $200 million worth of lost fruit and $500 million in depressed property values.

At Golden Gem Growers, managers decided to stay in business and adapt to the changed circumstances, says Kennedy, who is a vice-president of the organization. The cooperative started buying fruit from other parts of the state to keep its packing and juice-concentrate plants going. It slashed its work force by at least two-thirds. Kennedy's grove-services division, which used to have close to 200 workers during the summer growing season, now gets by with 35.

The cooperative also began replanting. Reduced from 17,000 acres of citrus groves before the freeze to some 2,000 acres, growers at Goldem Gem put in 3,000 acres of new trees and plan even more.

They're also installing several innovations to guard against future cold snaps: heartier varieties of trees, special wraps for young tree trunks, and microsprinkler irrigation systems that can help keep the trees warm on cold nights.

``Should we have a freeze, we're in the strongest position to save young trees,'' says Don Farmer, deputy director of the Florida Department of Citrus, a state agency.

Even so, US orange production is unlikely to move back to record production levels anytime soon, citrus experts say. Florida, which produces three-quarters of the nation's orange crop, is expected to harvest 130 million boxes this year, according to the US Agriculture Department. That's the largest crop in five years but a far cry from the more than 200 million boxes harvested back in 1979-80.

Several forces are slowing the state's citrus recovery. The replanting process itself is expensive and slow. It often takes four years or more before an orange tree yields a big enough crop to offset a grower's annual expenses; several more years before the tree reaches peak production. Replanting was also slowed by the lack of young nursery trees, millions of which were destroyed after many were found to be contaminated by citrus canker, a destructive microorganism.

Furthermore, compared with freezes in the 1950s and '60s, there is less economic incentive to replant aggressively. Imported oranges from Brazil have filled Florida's shortfall and damped any large price rise.

``We've got a lot of juice from Brazil,'' says Ben Huang, agricultural economist at the US Agriculture Department. The US actually produces 148 tons less than it did in the 1969-70 crop year, while Brazil's production has grown sixfold in that time. It has replaced the US as the world's largest producer of oranges.

Along with the strong recovery in Lake County, there's an emerging sense that the severe freezes have changed the industry permanently. The area's economy is diversifying with an influx of growth and retirees from sprawling Orlando. Citrus has become less important. The freezes did not hurt the county to the extent that some growers feared.

``I thought it would have much more impact than it did,'' Kennedy says. In Lake County, ``citrus was king. I'd like to think that was still true. But mostly it's not true.''

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