(Oct. 13) LAKELAND, Fla. — The largest citrus-producing state expects to produce fewer oranges this season.

While Florida’s overall citrus production is expected to be down slightly from last season, the state’s grapefruit grower-shippers are forecast to produce more fruit this year.

In the season’s first official forecast, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Oct. 12 estimated Florida should produce 135 million boxes of oranges, a 9% decline from last season’s 148 million boxes.

Grapefruit production is expected to rebound from last season’s 19 million boxes to this year’s 26 million boxes, a 37% increase. Production, however, remains down by nearly half — 42% — from the state’s typical 45 million box production.

For total citrus production, Florida grower-shippers expect to produce 166.7 million boxes — down 3.6% from last season’s 173 million boxes. The total, however, is down 41% from the state’s 281 million box 2000-04 average. Successive hurricanes in 2004 and 2005 wrecked Florida’s citrus production.

“The average fruit per-tree is way reduced from the average even during the hurricane years in some cases,” said Robert Terry, citrus director of the Orlando-based Florida Agricultural Statistics Service.

Mike Yetter, director of international marketing for the Florida Department of Citrus, characterized fresh shipments — particularly grapefruit — as positive.

“From the fresh perspective, we anticipate that we will have significantly more fruit (shipped) to the fresh market this year, especially to the international market,” he said. “On top of 35% increase, we anticipate packout rates to be higher because the external quality of the fruit is excellent.”

About 40% of Florida’s grapefruit goes to the fresh market with 65% of tangerines and 4% of oranges shipping to fresh buyers.

After the Feb. 14 cold snap that interrupted the blooming cycle and prevented proper blooming and fruit setting, the southern Gulf of Mexico growing region of Florida, responsible for nearly 40% of Florida’s valencia production, has the lowest fruit set levels, Terry said. An overwhelming majority of valencias ship to juice plants.

The new estimates show that Florida’s citrus trees remain stressed from recent hurricanes, said Bob Norberg, the citrus department’s director of economic and market research.

“This crop will be the smallest orange crop since the freeze impacted crop of 1989-90,” he said. “We are looking at the smallest number of pieces of fruit per tree.”