(Oct. 15) If Florida citrus crop production finishes as strong as the early predictions, it could be a banner year for Sunshine State growers.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture released a record orange crop estimate Oct. 10 for the 2003-04 season of 252 million boxes, which is 24% higher than last season and 3% above the record high of 244 million in 1997-98.

Grapefruit production is forecast at 42 million boxes, which is 8.5% above the previous season. The breakdown is 17 million boxes for white grapefruit and 25 million boxes for pink grapefruit.

The forecast on early, midseason and navel varieties is 137 million boxes, a 22% increase over 2002-03. The valencia estimate is a record 115 million boxes, which is 26% above last season and 11% above the existing record high of 104 million boxes in 1997-98.

Overall, about 95% of Florida’s orangeproduction goes to the processed market each year, but the majority of the grapefruit produced goes to the fresh market, primarily as exports.

Specialty fruit and tangerines are estimated at 9.3 million boxes, a 1% increase over last season.

“These are all significant increases,” said Bob Crawford, executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus. “We’ve had favorable weather conditions and lots of rain. We’re 23% above normal on rainfall and the average temperature has been 80 degrees, which is below normal.

“We have good strong markets internationally in Japan,” Crawford said. “They’re moving more outside of Tokyo and into the outlying areas, so we expect increased consumption. We also expect Europe to rebound some as well.”

According to the USDA, current fruit sizes are larger than the 10-season average. Average fruit per tree is up over 28% from last season, reflecting a heavy bloom period and good weather.