Winter's Grip Tightens Reins on Citrus Growers' Rebound

THE 1980s began with a drought and ended with a freeze. In between were long weather periods of extremes, ups and downs that set records and threw agriculture for a loop. Farmers will long remember, perhaps bitterly, the decade for its two severe droughts and three deep freezes.

The latest freeze over the Christmas weekend was no exception in the string of bad memories. It ruined citrus crops, damaged winter wheat, and stopped dead in its tracks a four-year rebound by growers in Florida and Texas.

The freeze's impact on consumers will be little more than a blip on the screen. Except for a month or so of unusually high prices for fresh vegetables and a longer uptick in orange-juice prices, the freeze won't send food prices soaring, economists say.

``My forecast for 1990 is a 3 to 5 percent increase in food prices, and I don't see any reason to move out of that range,'' says Ralph Parlett, an agricultural economist at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Actually, food prices in 1989 rose slightly faster than that: just under 6 percent, he says.

But many farmers are already reeling from the effects of the freeze.

In Brownsville, Texas, state agriculture officials have raised their damage estimates as they learned last week that three large nurseries in the area suffered a little more than $7 million in damages and will have to lay off 250 employees very soon. Overall estimated damage in the Rio Grande Valley, Texas' largest agricultural area: $100 million to $300 million this year and perhaps $500 million overall, says David Galvan, district director for the Texas Department of Agriculture.

Losses may well extend into next year because the damage to some crops was so severe that it destroyed their future yield potential. In one dramatic example, 99 percent of the aloe vera grown in Texas' Rio Grande Valley was destroyed by the freeze. That means no crop this year or next year. The area produces 90 percent of the nation's commercially cultivated aloe vera, a cactus whose juices are used in skin creams and suntan lotion.

On a larger scale, citrus growers are trying to assess the long-term impact of the freezes on their trees. The situation appears more acute on Texas growers, who are reporting tree damage, as opposed to the much larger citrus acreage in Florida, which has less serious leaf damage. Citrus growers in both states have been building back after similar devastating freezes in 1983 and 1985 destroyed thousands of acres of trees.

The latest freeze will set back those efforts.

Lake County, Fla., for example, used to be the state's second-largest citrus-producing county. But the '83 and '85 freezes destroyed so many trees that producing acreage dropped from 117,000 to 12,000.

Florida agriculture officials say its too early to tell how much of the crop is lost, because an unknown portion of the frozen crop will be saved. Juice oranges can still be processed if temperatures stay cool. So the state's 28 processing plants are operating full-tilt in a mad rush to try to salvage the orange crop.

Even so, ``we are not going to get the whole crop,'' says Don Farmer, deputy executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus. He says the processing plants can process about 7 million to 8 million or more boxes of citrus a week. But when the freeze hit, 80 percent of the state's citrus crop, or some 108 million boxes, were still on the trees. And a large portion of them were damaged.

Vegetable growers in Florida and Texas were also hard hit. According to Mr. Galvan, 90 percent of the vegetable crops in his area standing two inches above the ground were destroyed. Even the hardier vegetables, such as onions and cabbage, are expected to show a 50 percent reduction in yields. There are also reports of sugar cane damage in both states.

These reports have already sent wholesale vegetable prices soaring. But if the December 1983 freeze is any indication, the price spike will be short-lived, Mr. Parlett says. In January 1984, vegetable prices rose 15 percent and a little more in February then went down as new crops matured.

The unusual weather of 1989 also affected other US areas.

``We are seeing a pattern of heightened variability: hotter hots, drier dries, colder colds,'' says Peter Leavitt, a meteorologist at Weather Services Corporation in Bedford, Mass. And the US has borne the brunt of that unusual weather in the past year, he adds.

Boston, for example, logged the coldest December ever, eclipsing a record held for more than 100 years. The frigid weather throughout the Northeast has set various records and caused heating oil prices to skyrocket.

The Christmas weekend freeze also exacerbated low water levels on the Mississippi River and hurt the winter wheat crop in states such as Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma, says Jon Davis, agricultural meteorologist at Shearson Lehman Hutton Inc.

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