(Oct. 16) Florida’s largest citrus growers’ organization hopes to alleviate added financial pressure on its members in the wake of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s citrus forecast for 2003-04.

Lakeland-based Florida Citrus Mutual is dropping its member assessment from 1.5 cents per box to 1.3 cents after the Oct. 10 estimate for a record crop.

The USDA expects the orange crop — the majority of which goes to processing — to produce 252 million boxes, which is a 24% increase over last year. Other varieties are also up, including grapefruit that is projected at 42 million boxes — an 8.5% increase over last season. The tangerine crop was estimated at 6.6 million boxes, a 22% increase.

“The excellent bloom and fruit set, along with abundant rains have significantly impacted this season’s crop size,” said Andy LaVigne, executive vice president and chief executive officer of Florida Citrus Mutual. “Unfortunately, the estimate doesn’t bode well for prices to Florida citrus growers who must brace for this record crop in the face of weakening demand.”

After the USDA announcement, Florida Citrus Mutual’s board of directors voted unanimously to reduce the assessment. It is the first time the organization has made such a move, spokeswoman Casey Pace said.

“After hearing the crop estimate and realizing the financial difficulties growers will face, we will tighten our budget and cut expenses by 14%,” LaVigne said. “We must now find creative ways to supplement our budget and utilize reserves in order to continue working on behalf of Florida citrus growers.”

Pace said the cuts to the original budget will come by postponing improvements to the organization’s building and through attrition.

Based on an estimated harvest of 302 million total boxes, the decrease in the assessment will save growers about $600,000. However, even with the decrease in the assessment rate, the citrus mutual still stands to collect about $168,500 more in assessment revenue than last year if the forecast holds true.

Dolphus Broxton, president and chief executive officer of Diversified Citrus Marketing, Lake Hamilton, Fla., said the decrease in box assessment would provide minimal relief for growers.

“It will save growers a few pennies,” he said. “If we have to lower prices to do increased volume, it won’t save that much.”

Complicating matters, inventories of orange juice concentrate have increased in the past year because of a drop in demand, which leaves growers with fewer avenues to sell.