Wilma Squeezes Florida Citrus

Citrus fruit floats in a flooded grove near Immokalee, Fla., Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2005, after it was knocked from the trees by Hurricane Wilma on Monday. (AP Photo/Naples Daily News, David Ahntholz) ** MAGS OUT NO SALES **
Florida grapefruit may be scarce in stores, and the price of orange juice may inch up slightly for consumers this winter, commodities analysts said Monday after a growers group estimated Hurricane Wilma had knocked 17 percent of the citrus crop off trees.

Last week's Category 3 storm will cause the loss of $180 million worth of Florida citrus, or about 35.7 million boxes of fruit, according to preliminary estimates released Monday by Florida Citrus Mutual. The estimates are limited to crop damage and don't take into account the loss of infrastructure, such as packing houses and equipment.

The early estimates predict a loss of 24.4 million boxes of oranges, or 13 percent of the state's crop, and 11.3 million boxes of grapefruit, or almost half of the state's crop. In years past, Florida has been the world leader of grapefruit production.

Almost all of the Florida's oranges are processed into juice, accounting for 80 percent of the U.S. orange supply and more than a third of the world's supply. Brazil is the world's largest producer of orange juice.

Commodities analysts Boyd Cruel of Alaron Trading and Kevin Sharpe of Basic Commodities predicted that orange juice prices for U.S. consumers likely would increase over the next several months by 5 percent to 10 percent, much as prices did last year after three hurricanes hit Florida's citrus-producing areas. A fourth hurricane landed last year in the Panhandle, where no citrus is grown.

"You have a crop that just got diminished right as harvest was coming around here," Sharpe said of Wilma. "You have quite a bit of fruit that was supposed to be harvested on the ground."

Since striking the state Oct. 24, Wilma has caused frozen orange juice futures to trade at their highest prices since 1998, in the range of $1.19 a pound on the New York Board of Trade, and the Florida Citrus Mutual estimate has given the price "some underlying support," Cruel said.

Last month, before Hurricane Wilma swept ashore in southwest Florida, the U.S. Department of Agriculture had predicted that 190 million boxes of oranges, and 24 million boxes of grapefruit, would be produced in the upcoming 2005-2006 growing season.

Last year, Florida growers produced 149.6 million boxes of oranges, the smallest crop in 13 years, and 12.8 million boxes of grapefruit, the smallest since the 1935-1936 season.

The expected size of this year's grapefruit crop after Wilma may make fresh grapefruit scarce in U.S. grocery stores for another consecutive year. Fresh Florida grapefruit also is a popular export, especially to Japan.

"This past year, a lot of stores around me didn't have grapefruit," said Sharpe, who is based in the Orlando area.