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CHARLEY, FRANCES AND JEANNE
These names have become all too familiar to Floridians in the last few weeks and to citrus growers almost everywhere. Hurricane Charley entered southwest Florida and tracked across central Florida, causing very serious losses to citrus in the Florida Ridge-both oranges and grapefruit.
A couple of weeks later, Hurricane Frances came ashore in the Indian River District, causing tremendous damage to the red grapefruit crop there-with some estimates pegged at 70 percent loss of the crop. That storm literally crawled across the state, again through the heart of the Ridge, finally entering the Gulf north of Tampa. Its track crossed that of Charley in Polk County.
Then, Hurricane Ivan was widely expected to track up the middle of the Florida Peninsula, but its anticipated northerly turn didn't occur until a couple of days later than expected, which put it into the Gulf where it ultimately went ashore near Mobile, AL?thereby sparing the Florida citrus industry another devastating blow from wind damage, though it produced lots of rain in already-wet groves.
But, there is "no joy in Mudville, as the mighty Casey struck out", and strike three was Hurricane Jeanne. Jeanne roared ashore at almost the same spot as Hurricane Frances three weeks earlier and tried to knock off any Indian River grapefruit that had survived Frances. Jeanne followed almost the same track across central Florida as her predecessor, further damaging the Ridge's orange crop.
While the dubious record of four hurricanes in one season has belonged to Texas since the late 1880's, Florida has now tied that record.
The fruit loss is certainly serious, especially to the orange crop in central Florida and to oranges, specialty fruit and grapefruit in the Indian River. The pre-Hurricane Jeanne estimate by the Florida Agricultural Statistics Service will be made public on schedule next Friday with adjustments for Hurricane Jeanne expected to be factored in for the November forecast.
Tree damage from the latter two storms has not been reported to be as severe as that after Charley but that's the obvious uprooting and limb breakage that anybody can see. The damage that you can't see is a major concern, especially in the flatwoods and the Indian River District as that damage could easily surpass that of the loss of fruit. In those areas, the groves are mostly bedded to provide about 3 feet of rooting depth for the trees, with water furrows every other row (most commonly) that serve both irrigation and drainage needs.
The problem is that the water table in the area is usually only about 3 feet below the tops of the beds and the amount of rainfall since about the first of August has been phenomenal. Although tremendous effort has been expended to pump water out of the groves the tremendous rains before, during and after the storms have just been too much. Even if all pumps were set up to operate on auxiliary power (restoring electricity to grove pumps is nowhere near the level of priority as is restoring service to homes and businesses), early indications are that too many groves have been flooded too long and too many times in the last 6 weeks. Root rot is sure to rear its ugly head and cause tree damage that will be manifest for another couple of years and that's if it is not so bad as to dictate outright abandonment, conversion to other land use, or push and replant.
PROFIT FROM MISERY-
As is all too often the case in production agriculture, it seems to take a major disaster in one sector of an industry for the rest of that industry to realize what most would consider to be only decent returns. The disasters in Florida are no exception. California's summer grapefruit sales have surged already. FCOJ prices have seen significant increases in recent weeks. Fund raisers are already inquiring about possible sources of fruit. Texas growers fully expect significantly higher returns for their grapefruit this season. Of course, grapefruit growers in the Gulf District of Florida also expect significantly higher returns for their fruit.
The grapefruit loss in Florida should reduce the inventory of FCGFJ, thereby boosting the returns on processed grapefruit which has traditionally been a losing proposition for Texas grapefruit growers. In addition, the orange loss in Florida will also reduce the inventory of FCOJ. However, there are a lot of countries that grow oranges for concentrate.
If you had any oranges processed at TCX in the 2003-04 season, you already know that the normal late summer payout from TCX has been delayed perhaps into spring because of the excess inventory of juice (and the inherently poor quality of Marrs juice). Perhaps that payout will come a little sooner as FCOJ inventories are reduced.
There has been a lot of interest in and speculation about Texas grapefruit for the coming season. Buyers and suppliers are interested in Texas fruit to help fill the gap that will obviously result from Florida's losses. A quick look at the numbers, Texas grapefruit has varied around 11,000 carlot equivalents over the last several seasons, which converts to about 220,000 tons, give or take. In Florida's boxes, that's something in the range of 5.2 million boxes. The grapefruit losses in Florida could easily exceed 2-3 times that amount, remember this is an industry that produced roughly 45 to 55 million boxes of grapefruit annually during the last several years.
So, no, Texas cannot make up the shortfall. What is likely is that Fancy grade will bring a higher price, but then Fancy is usually not a problem to sell. Choice grade should also command a higher price and most Choice grade fruit should actually be sold, unlike in most prior seasons when the amount of Choice fruit exceeded demand, causing the excess to be diverted to processing. Smaller sizes may be easier to sell, also, further reducing the volume to processing. Eliminations, of course, will still go to processing, but the overall processed volume should be down, mainly because most Choice grade fruit and smaller sizes will go fresh for a change. Ergo, juice inventory should decline, thereby increasing the returns on processed fruit.
Recent rains have continued to supply most soil moisture needs and even put more water into the reservoirs. The latest numbers I have seen are that the U.S. volume in storage is near 75 percent of conservation level, while that of Mexico is near 55 percent. According to recent reports, runoff from heavy rains across the Big Bend area and far west Texas should add to existing levels in Lake Amistad.
Texas citrus growers rarely have to open the borders and drain water from the groves, but there were exceptions last month. Maturity has been a little slow to occur this season, in part because of the rains?but wet groves would impede harvest anyway.
Citrus rust mites will have thrived under the prevailing weather conditions, so close monitoring and quick response to increased populations is critical. Mother Nature just handed you the potential for higher returns on your fruit this season, it's up to you to keep it clean and of fresh market quality.
JULIAN W. SAULS, Ph.D.
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