On Oct. 12, the news was good. Both the orange and grapefruit crops were recovering from the hurricanes of 2004. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2005-06 Florida citrus crop estimate showed a rebounding industry.

Twelve days later, the news took a turn for the worse. Another hurricane hit South Florida. This time, her name was Wilma, and two of the state’s largest citrus-producing counties — Hendry and Collier — were hit hard.

 “Growers in these areas have seen their groves, barns, equipment and homes severely impacted by this storm,” said Andy LaVigne, Florida Citrus Mutual’s executive vice president/CEO. “This will certainly have an impact on their livelihoods and this season’s citrus crop.”

News before the storm

USDA’s initial citrus crop estimate for the 2005-06 citrus crop, which was completed before Hurricane Wilma, projected a 27 percent increase in the orange crop.

Ellis Hunt Jr., vice president of Hunt Bros. Cooperative, said the estimate of 190 million boxes of oranges was “decent.”

“We need 200 million boxes to supply the needs of the U.S.,” Hunt said. “It’s imperative to get profitability back to the grove owners.”

Dan Gunter, executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus, said the Department was pleased with the numbers.

“Growers are likely to see better returns,” he said.

The FDOC, which is funded through the box tax, will have to adjust its budget after the estimate. When the budget was originally figured in June, the FDOC estimated a crop of 201 million boxes. The Oct. 12 estimate will decrease the budget by about $2 million to $58 million, with marketing taking the bulk of the hit. Of course, Hurricane Wilma may also affect the budget, but those numbers are not yet available.

Bob Terry, administrator for the Florida Agricultural Statistics Service, said tree numbers for oranges the service uses in its estimates are down 5 percent.

“The tree numbers are beginning to affect orange production,” Terry said. “We can see it occurring from not only citrus canker, but from other losses such as tristeza and last year’s storm damage.”

The grapefruit estimate was up more than 50 percent to 24 million boxes.

Although the crop rebounded substantially from the 2004 hurricanes, this estimate is still the lowest since the 1994-95 season.

The recovery shows the “resolve of the Florida industry and the Florida grower,” said Bob Norberg, director of economic and market research for the Department of Citrus.

Other types of specialty citrus, including temple oranges, tangelos and tangerines, was expected to total 8.3 million boxes this year, up 25 percent from last season.

The total citrus yield in Florida was expected to be 222.3 million boxes, up 31 percent from a year ago.

After the storm

Now for the bad news.       

As of press time, damage estimates from Hurricane Wilma were still being calculated.

The two hardest-hit citrus counties — Hendry and Collier — have about 130,000 acres of citrus groves. According to Florida Citrus Mutual, preliminary reports indicate that in some areas, up to 15 percent of the fruit crop has been blown off trees and some trees are leaning over or uprooted from the severe winds.

“It is difficult for us to adequately gauge the crop loss at this time due to downed communications lines in that area,” LaVigne said. 

In addition to crop and tree damage, growers are concerned that Hurricane Wilma could have increased the spread of citrus canker, which is moved by wind-driven rain. State officials have been battling citrus canker since 1995 and were close to eradicating the disease until the hurricanes of 2004 increased its spread.

“In the past year alone, the state has or is scheduled to remove nearly 70,000 acres of citrus groves due to the spread of citrus canker after last year’s storms,” LaVigne said.

In a letter to Gov. Jeb Bush detailing the destruction, Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson said he had never witnessed such extensive devastation to the state’s agriculture sectors as that caused by Hurricane Wilma.

“At least 40 percent of our citrus crop in the impacted area is also on the ground,” Bronson said. “It may be months before we know how badly trees were damaged or how extensively the dreaded citrus canker disease was spread by the storm’s wind and rain.”

For up-to-date citrus information regarding Hurricane Wilma, call Florida Citrus Mutual at (863) 682-1111 or visit www.flcitrusmutual.com.