VERO BEACH, Fla. — Total estimated damages to Florida’s crops from December freezes have increased to $370 million, a jump of about $100 million.

Although that estimate is mostly damage to vegetables — including transportation and lost sales at retail — citrus grower-shippers are questioning a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture survey that shows little damage to the state’s citrus groves.

Florida freeze damage estimates rise, citrus report questioned

Doug Ohlemeier

Grapefruit running on the packing line at Premier Citrus Packers Inc., Vero Beach, Fla., in late January. Florida officials have increased their estimates of damages caused by December freezes. And grower-shippers question a USDA report that shows the freezes caused little damage to the state’s citrus.

Through February, growers are expected to ultimately lose more than $150 million in cash receipts, increased from the $115 million authorities estimated in late December.

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Tallahassee, estimates the freezes destroyed approximately 2.5 million cartons and cases of fruit and vegetables during December, and the state is expected to lose as many as 4 million additional cartons in February and March, said Sterling Ivey, a department a press secretary. The losses do not include processed citrus.

On Jan. 18, the USDA’s Agricultural Statistics Service reported the majority of citrus samples inspected in a special freeze damage survey were graded as “no damage apparent.”

About 97% of the state’s grapefruit and 70% of its midseason and late oranges showed no apparent damage.

Greg Nelson, president of DNE World Fruit Sales, Fort Pierce, said some growing regions may have suffered minor losses but growers in many areas experienced more severe losses.

“The consensus of growers I have spoken with is that the USDA underestimated the extent of the actual damage that occurred,” he said Jan. 19. “That being said, there are still adequate amounts of good, wholesome fruit to ship, but nonetheless, there was a loss sustained by quite a few growers.”

Michel Sallin, president and chief executive officer of IMG Citrus Inc. and president of Florida Citrus Packers Inc., Lakeland, said tangerines — which weren’t surveyed — sustained 30%-50% losses.

But he said it’s always good to have a small production reduction and that buyers should expect strong volumes of fruit.

“Most of the bad fruit was on the ground or in juice plants when the survey was taken,” Sallin said. “The survey only shows what was on the tree. We will not see any freeze-damaged fruit shipped to consumers.”

On early season oranges, which include navels harvested through December but are sold through late January, 66% showed no damage with 11% harmed at quarter- and half-inch cuts.

For midseason oranges, surveys showed 54% undamaged with 20% sustaining damage at quarter-inch cuts and 20% at half-inch cuts.

On late season oranges, which include valencias that begin harvesting in late January and early February and run through June, 87% surveyed showed no apparent damage.

The Dundee Citrus Growers Association was finishing packing navels in late January and planned to start valencias in early February.

“We’ve seen a little damage but it is minor damage,” said Al Finch, vice president of sales and marketing for Dundee’s marketing arm, the Lake Hamilton-based Florida Classic Growers. “We have been very blessed and with the volume, we continued the course.”

On vegetables, Florida officials plan to examine the overall recovery rate in late January, Ivey said.  

Lisa Lochridge, director of public affairs for Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, Maitland, said the higher numbers weren’t surprising given that it normally takes some time to assess a true picture of damage.

“Growers are optimistic that the worst of the cold weather is behind us and we will have a much better outlook for the spring,” she said. “Volume is down and volume is thin in some areas, but the weather and growing conditions that we have moving forward will be key in how we turn this around into a more successful market.”
More favorable temperatures have help support crop recovery, Ivey said.

He said bell peppers, green beans, sweet corn, cucumbers and eggplant sustained the heaviest losses.