By Vicky Boyd,

Although this year’s citrus crop may be smaller than 2008-09, don’t point the finger at citrus greening for the decrease.

Instead, blame a prolonged drought and freezing temperatures for the 14 percent decrease in crop size, says Ken Keck, executive director of the Lakeland-based Florida Department of Citrus.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture released its first estimate of 161.7 million boxes of citrus for the 2009-10 Florida crop Friday. That compares with 189.1 million boxes for the 2008-09 crop.

Broken down, growers this season are expected to harvest 136 million 90-pound boxes of oranges, 19.8 million 85 pound boxes of grapefruit and 5.9 million boxes of specialty citrus.

The number of trees in the state declined to 74.1 million, a reduction of less than 2 percent, Keck said in a conference call. 

The exact cause of fewer fruit per tree could be caused by one of several factors, including freezing temperatures at bloom and a prolonged drought, he says.

“That’s substantially less than anticipated,” Keck says.  “That shows that greening isn’t necessarily death to the industry. It certainly is a problem, but one that’s being addressed.”.

During the past decade, the state was losing an average of 8 percent of its trees annually to development, hurricanes, canker eradication and tristeza, says Bob Norberg, deputy executive executive director, research and operations.

At the peak, the numbers topped 16 percent.

“So development is not putting the pressure on as it was before. It’s more of a disease issue,” he says.

Buoyed by the increase in consumer confidence to 53 from the low 20s earlier this year, Keck says he believes growers should see firmer prices this season.

Frozen concentrated orange juice futures prices firmed shortly after the USDA’s announcement.

The shorter crop is somewhat offset by a six-month supply of orange juice in inventory. “So there should be plenty of juice for consumers,” Norberg says.

Retail sales of orange juice increased 1 percent last year, and he says he hopes that trend continues.

“It’s a rather small increase, but it’s the first year-over-year increase since October 2001, so that’s a good sign for orange juice sales,” Norberg says.

In DOC surveys, 73 percent of consumers say their economic condition won’t affect their orange juice purchases because of the value they find in the beverage.

This year’s smaller Florida crop may mean slightly increased imports of Brazilian juice, he says.

Brazil is expected to harvest 310 million boxes this season compared with 315 million last season.

“Importers are sitting on a lot of inventory,” Norberg says. “With our shorter crop, we will probably see a bit more juice being imported by the processors.”

The smaller crop also will mean the Florida Department of Citrus will have fewer grower funds with which to work, Keck says.

“I don’t see it going to the maximum rate, but these numbers certainly are going to make staff and ultimately the commission prioritize the programs,” he says.

The Florida Legislature has established a maximum per-box tax that the DOC can levy upon growers. A box is considered a 1 3/5 bushel equivalent. The funds are used to operate the Department of Citrus.

For the 2009-10 season, maximum assessment rates are 43 cents per box for fresh oranges, 28 cents for oranges going to processing, and 35 cents for both processing and fresh grapefruit.

The department has proposed assessments of 14 cents per box for fresh oranges, 24 cents for processing oranges, and 35 cents for both processing and fresh grapefruit.

That compares with 2008-09, when the department collected 11 cents per box for fresh oranges, 24 cents for processing oranges, and 35 cents for both processing and fresh grapefruit.

At its Oct. 21 meeting, the Florida Citrus Commission will discuss the department’s budget proposal for the 2009-10 season.

The proposal can be viewed at