(Aug. 20) Florida citrus shippers may get back to business slightly earlier than normal but not as early as a year ago.

Rain has drenched groves across the state this summer, but it hasn’t affected sizing on early-season oranges, tangerines and grapefruit, growers said.

“Sizing is good for this time of the year,” said Bruce McEvoy, chief executive officer of Seald Sweet LLC, Vero Beach, Fla. “Last year we started out large, and that’s not good for fruit going to market.”

“Size is smaller (than last year),” said Dolphus Broxton, president and chief executive officer of Diversified Citrus Marketing, Lake Hamilton, Fla. “Some say average to a bit larger than normal.”

Meantime, private forecasters suggest some Florida citrus growers will see a slight increase in production.

“According to the private forecasts, lemon production will be much larger, and oranges will be up 10% to 12%,” McEvoy said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture hasn’t released its first estimate of the 2003-04 Florida citrus crop, but if the 10% figure on oranges is accurate it would amount to an increase of about 20 million 90-pound boxes over last year’s 202.7 million boxes.

Early, mid-varieties and navels were off 12.5% last year, and valencia production was down 11% due to a winter drought during tree bloom and rainy conditions that resulted in larger than average oranges.

Although, only 5% of the state’s oranges and 40% of its grapefruit go to the fresh market. If the early forecast holds true, it could lead to a slight drop in fresh market f.o.b.s.

Broxton said grapefruit production is expected to be down slightly from last year’s 38.7 million 85-pound boxes, due primarily to decreasing acreage. Production of white and colored seedless dropped 17% a year ago.

Deep red grapefruit, particularly the star ruby variety, are expected to be much lower, according to Paul Genke, director of sales and marketing for The Packers of Indian River Ltd., Fort Pierce, Fla.

“It’s just not there,” he said. “Production of the other reds is off 10% to 15%. Nobody knows why.”

But overall volume is expected to improve due to a better quality fruit, Genke said.

“There’s not that much more fruit on the trees than a year ago, probably 5% or less,” he said. “Total grapefruit production (in the state) will be about the same. But we expect about 10% more cartons because (the fruit) looks better. Last year we had some bad looking fruit (sheep-nosed) but this year it looks much better."

Broxton said his company will begin shipping around mid-September.

“We’ll be starting some time around the full moon in September (Sept. 10),” he said. “That’s usually a barometer, and we’ll start shipping about Sept. 15. We’ll begin with red and white grapefruit and go from there. It will be sporadic at first and slowly build up.”

The Indian River district is expected to follow in mid- to late-September.