Florida orange growers fight back after bouts with frost and citrus disease

A little sunshine is back in Florida's citrus industry. But no one is sure how long it will last.

After back-to-back freezes that have devastated thousands of acres of groves, growers are emerging from this winter relatively unscathed. There is hope -- and a lot of skepticism too -- that Florida's $2.5 billion citrus industry will bounce back.

``We hope we're going to recover,'' says Don Farmer, deputy director of the Florida Department of Citrus, a state agency. ``But we're talking 1990, '91, '92.''

``I don't know whether to believe it or not,'' adds William G. Edwards, as he guides a station wagon past long rows of orange, grapefruit, and lemon trees of the Callery-Judge Grove here, which he manages. ``There's no doubt that the industry is going through a transition.''

The 1980s have not been particularly gentle on Florida's second-largest industry. After a string of freezes in most of the past five years, the state's citrus produc[el16l]tion has fallen more than 40 percent. Frost has eliminated a quarter of Florida's citrus acreage; the 14 hardest-hit counties have only a fifth of their former acreage.

Now, with the first good year in the past three, growers are set to rebound. This year, they are expected to produce 130 million boxes of oranges -- up from 104 million last year. But two major obstacles -- besides uncertainty about the cold -- stand in the way of a strong recovery: citrus canker and increased foreign competition from Brazil.

The canker, a microorganism that weakens trees and in time reduces yields, has not affected production directly. Of 20 canker finds since August 1984, none have been in commercial producing groves. But the 18.6 million trees destroyed, largely in canker-infested nurseries, has halted attempts by growers to replant frost-damaged groves.

``The canker thing has cost the industry a tremendous amount of money,'' says Mr. Edwards, who not only had to delay his replanting program, but also had to spend heavily on canker-precaution measures.

One item: a $40,000 decontamination unit, which looks like a cheap car-wash, through which all vehicles must go before entering the groves.

Florida growers have also lost sales in other citrus-producing states, which don't accept Florida citrus for fear of bringing the canker into their states, he adds.

Meanwhile, budget cuts threaten to take the federal government out of the canker eradication program, which it ran jointly with the state, next month. Producers already are grumbling that a grower-tax will have to make up for the lost federal funds.

Even if canker is eradicated, competition from Brazil will not go away anytime soon.

``There's definitely a big battle coming on,'' says Bobby McKown, executive vice-president of Florida Citrus Mutual, a grower cooperative. ``We are not going to give up this market to the Brazilians or anyone else.''

With Florida growers staging a comeback and Brazil continuing to increase production, wholesale prices already have come down -- from $5.32 for a dozen six-ounce cans of concentrate last Feb. 1 to $3.83 a year later.

Various solutions are proposed. Mr. McKown of Citrus Mutual wants the Florida industry to compete on the basis of its quality. Edwards talks of making an agreement with Brazil.

Mr. Farmer of the state citrus department looks to increased exports to Europe -- and ``a couple or three years of normal weather.''

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