December Zap Reshapes Industry

After four freezes in 10 years, many growers are moving farther south or leaving the business. FLORIDA CITRUS: AFTER THE FREEZE

IRVIN BARWICK gestures with his hands as he drives through a land of green grass and dead brown trees. ``I believed in these sandhills,'' he says. ``And up to Christmas '89, I would have said Lake County was still the best place to grow citrus. But after December, I can't say that.''

The Christmas freeze of 1989 has destroyed more than fruit and vegetable crops from Florida to Texas to northern Mexico. It has reshaped the industry. Texas was hit so hard that it is not expected to harvest a commercial orange crop next year. And here in Florida, growers are abandoning the northern reaches of the citrus belt and moving farther south. Others, bowled over by four freezes in 10 years, are abandoning the industry altogether - like Mr. Barwick.

``We were just fixing to turn the corner this year, then the Christmas freeze came along,'' says Barwick, president and general manager of Postal Colony, a citrus operation here in Clermont. Almost overnight, the acres of live citrus groves under Postal Colony's care went from 4,500 to perhaps 500 acres, he estimates. So the company, started by a group of postal workers in the early 1920s, is closing down.

``I just don't see how they can continue,'' Barwick says. No one knows how many growers in central Florida will follow suit. But it will be significant, if the recent past is any guide.

``I think that we can say there will be an exodus,'' says Bobby McKown, executive vice-president of Florida Citrus Mutual, a growers' cooperative. After the one-two punch of the 1983 and '85 freezes, he says, the state lost some 2,000 to 2,500 growers before starting to rebuild itself.

``It's safe to say that citrus in central Florida will never come back to what it was,'' adds Tom Morgan, spokesman for A. Duda and Sons Inc., a huge agribusiness firm based in nearby Oviedo. Some 20 years ago, the company moved its citrus operations farther south to La Belle, and other growers have since followed.

The three days of freezing temperatures in December cut the Texas orange crop by an estimated 37 percent from pre-freeze forecasts, says Kate Buckley, agricultural economist with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). That is higher than the 23 percent drop-off in Florida. But Texas grows primarily fresh oranges, which will be made up by a huge California crop. Florida raises mostly juice oranges. The state's orange juice production is expected to drop 42 percent, according to USDA.

This overall decrease in Florida understates the magnitude of the destruction in the northern tier of the state's citrus belt.

Lake County, for example, used to be the second-largest citrus-producing county in the state. Before the big '83 and '85 freezes, it boasted some 117,000 acres of citrus land, according to the Florida Department of Citrus. These two freezes cut the acreage back to 12,000. But a number of growers replanted, so that by last year the county's citrus acreage had rebounded to about 60,000.

It takes five to seven years before growers begin to reap the benefits from replanted trees. So the groves replanted after 1983 were just entering their highly productive period when the 1989 freeze hit. Barwick estimates the county now has less than 10,000 acres of live groves. In January, he recommended that the board of directors liquidate Postal Colony, which they agreed to do.

The company still must find buyers for its land. Before the freeze, a good productive orange grove might have sold for $10,000 to $12,000 an acre in the area, Barwick says. One grove owner recently offered to sell a dead citrus grove for $1,000 an acre - and got no takers.

Not everyone is abandoning Lake County.

``Our plan is to survive and be here,'' says John M. Kennedy, vice-president of Golden Gem Growers, a citrus cooperative in nearby Umatilla. He says several area growers are talking of leaving, but a few new investors have also started coming in, looking for land to plant new citrus groves.

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