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Manatee citrus crop hit hard by Jan. cold

MANATEE — Despite being situated near the coast, which is usually warmer than inland, Manatee County’s roughly 18,600 acres of citrus got slammed hard by a prolonged freeze in mid-January.

Severe damage to fruit and foliage locally was reported to the Peace River Valley Growers Association during a recent sampling of 20 to 30 members of the association from Manatee County, said Barbara Carlton, executive director of the Peace River Valley Growers Association.

Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, Manatee County’s largest citrus grower, expects a reduction of 15 to 20 percent from last year’s crop due to frost damage, said Mac Carraway, president of SMR Farms.

Steve Futch, a University of Florida extension agent specializing in citrus, estimates about 22 percent for Manatee’s reduction, the same as statewide.

Manatee’s losses contributed to a U.S. Department of Agriculture estimate Tuesday that showed a 2009-10 orange crop forecast at 129 million boxes, a reduction of 6 million boxes from January estimates.

Carlton and Carraway both said that the forecast is conservative.

“We were expecting a reduction in the crop size from the USDA, and we expect more yet to come,” Carlton said.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if the estimate doesn’t go down again,” Carraway said. “We got pretty significant damage to fruit and foilage, and the damage is still revealing itself.”

Both Carraway and Carlton reported that Manatee citrus growers lost fruit due to ice and lost tree leaves. Both said Manatee didn’t lose tree wood, which could have meant years for recovery.

Carlton went out into the groves during the roughly 10-day freeze and took pictures that show frost on the leaves and fruit being examined by growers for ice. Leaves began to turn brown and drop until the under canopy of the trees were covered with leaves like a carpet, Carlton said.

“Since then, we have seen the fruit begin to drop, too,” Carlton said.

Frost on leaves can cause leaves to drop, meaning the tree must spend its energy replacing leaves rather than making fruit.

Prolonged freezing temperatures makes the tiny sacs of juice stored inside each piece of citrus expand and burst, leading to crops that don’t have as much juice, Carlton said.

If the USDA’s estimates prove accurate for 2009-10, it would mean that Florida’s orange crop will be 21 percent smaller than last season’s crop, and the grapefruit crop will be 13 percent smaller, according to the Associated Press.

About 95 percent of Florida’s oranges go to make juice. Carlton said she has heard from juice processors that this year’s fruit isn’t producing as much juice. But it’s still too early to tell if the price of orange juice in grocery stores might go up because processors have supplies in reserve for emergencies like this, Carlton said.

In 2004, Manatee had 20,316 acres of citrus, but by 2009, that figure had fallen to 18,609, said Candice Erick, an agricultural statistics administrator for the USDA.

In 2004, Sarasota County had 1,648 acres, which fell to 1,411 acres in 2009.

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