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Hurricanes Ravage Florida Citrus

Hard hit by four hurricanes, Florida citrus growers will produce 27 percent fewer oranges in the 2004 to 2005 season -- the smallest crop in 11 years, the Agriculture Department said Tuesday.

Florida's grapefruit was particularly damaged by the hurricanes, producing the smallest crop since the 1937-38 season, department officials said. Production is expected to be 15 million 85-pound boxes -- or 63 percent less than last season's nearly 41 million boxes. Nationally, production would fall to 26 million boxes, about half of last year's 50 million.

"Grapefruit was hit bad," said Bob Terry, the department's chief of statistics in Florida, who attributed most of the damage to the citrus crop to high winds. "When winds get up over 50 to 60 miles an hour, it blows the fruit off."

The damage was felt most in two counties, Indian River and St. Lucie, which produce two-thirds of the state's grapefruit crop.

But the nation can expect record yields of corn, soybean and cotton, the department said. For corn, that was because "weather conditions have been mostly favorable throughout the growing season" in the Midwest, the department said. Soybeans were helped by adequate rain and below-normal temperatures early on, then above-normal temperatures just before harvest.

The department's October crop forecast said the corn harvest would be 11.6 billion bushels, up 15 percent from last year's record 10.1 billion bushels. Soybean production was forecast at 3.11 billion bushels, up 27 percent from last year. The record soybean crop was 2.89 billion bushels in 2001. Cotton production was forecast at 21.5 million 480-pound bales, up 18 percent from last year. The record cotton crop was 20.3 million bales in 2001.

U.S. wheat stocks were projected to fall 9 million bushels from last month's 578 million bushels, helping raise the projected price range 10 cents on the lower end to $3.10 to $3.50 per bushel.

The department also said world production of wheat had risen to a record 616 million metric tons, up 64 million metric tons from last year and the largest year-to-year increase in more than 45 years.

The losses to Florida's $800 million citrus crop -- which accounts for three-quarters of the nation's citrus products -- will reduce production by the nation's biggest orange grower to production of 176 million 90-pound boxes, the department said in its first forecast of the hurricane damage.

That is down from 242 million boxes last season, the second highest on record.

The biggest season was 1997's 244 million boxes. The expected crop of oranges this season is the least since 1993, when 174 million boxes were produced.

The government attributed the expected losses -- an estimate based on actual fruit counts and measurements by Florida agriculture officials -- directly to damage from hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne in citrus-producing areas of the state in August and September.

Nationally, 240 million boxes of oranges are expected to be produced this year, the department said. That includes 62,000 from Florida, 1,900 from Texas and 440 from Arizona. Boxes in California and Arizona are 75 pounds; those in Texas are 85 pounds.

The prices that growers earn for their fruit are expected to rise because of the decreased orange and grapefruit crops, as are the cost of futures contracts for frozen orange juice concentrate.

But the price that shoppers pay for juice at the store is expected to remain fairly stable because processors still hold a big inventory of oranges from last year's huge crop.

About 35 percent of the world's orange juice is produced by Florida, compared with nearly 50 percent produced by Brazil, the world's largest orange producer.

By John Heilprin

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