Growers begin to salvage Florida's citrus crop

Slightly higher orange juice prices and an uncertain long- range effect on Florida's orange trees -- these are the results of the recent freeze in Florida, according to growers and processors in central Florida, the nation's No. 1 orange growing area.

When grower Peter Russell Pierson cut open an orange after the freeze struck the Sunshine State Jan. 12 and 13, the ice inside made it look "just like a dish of sherbert," says his wife, Viola.

As much as 20 percent of this year's crop may have been lost, says Earl Wells , spokesman for the Florida Citrus Mutual.

But this, he said, would have only a "minor impact" on the price for consumers. A bumper crop was produced last year, and ample stocks of it are still available. Moreover, Brazil can be expected to take up the slack in supply.

Long-range damage to the trees may not be as severe as one might expect from such temperatures. The trees were fairly dormant because of earlier cold periods. Thus, they were better able to withstand the low temperatures, which in many areas dipped into the teens, says grower Harvey Heller of Winter Garden. But dryness in the trees also made them more susceptible to damage, he says.

Growers now are rushing to pick the frozen or partially frozen oranges before they fall. Many processors are opening on a seven-days-a-week, round-the-clock basis. It is not yet known how much juice can be salvaged. Florida Gov. Bob Graham has temporarily lifted weight restrictions for trucks hauling oranges.

Over the last 10 to 12 months, the retail price of orange juice has been falling because of the large crop last year.

"I'm sure we'll see some price increases," said Bill Jones, a spokesman for the Florida Citrus Commission.But he can't tell how much until the government does a crop sampling to determine damage.

Fewer than 20 percent of the state's citrus farmers are federally insured, says a spokesman for the Federal Crop Insurance program.

"You don't usually need it," says grower Heller. Many growers used to burn heaters in the fields on freezing nights, he said, but the price of fuel has gone up so much that fewer do so now.

The freeze also reduced the state's tomato crop by about 7 pe rcent, and cut into the pepper crop.

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