- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 24, 2004

WAUCHULA, Fla. - As he drove his pickup truck through an orange grove he owns, Roger Conley passed row after row of fruitless trees, some uprooted and others just snapped at the base. Green and yellow rotting fruit covered the ground, squishing under his boots when he got out.

Orange growers who survived Hurricane Charley unscathed stand to earn a bit more money than last season from higher prices. But others, like Mr. Conley, will struggle with a diminished crop and some may abandon citrus altogether as many did after the freezes in the 1980s.

Mr. Conley, who estimates his personal crop loss to be as much as 60 percent, doesn’t plan to be one of the quitters. But to get by, he said, he could use some relief from the federal government — or something closer at hand.

“I need to go home and take some Pepto-Bismol or something,” said Mr. Conley, who owns 150 acres of orange trees and manages an additional 1,850 acres of groves in the citrus belt of southwest Florida, which was hard hit the hurricane.

Although growers who still have fruit likely will get higher prices this season than last because of the smaller crop, the bounce they get may be tempered by an unusually large juice inventory in storage, declining consumption in the United States and a large crop from Brazil — the world’s largest orange producer.

“For the growers who didn’t get impacted, it’s going to help but it’s not going to be a huge windfall and they’re not going to be laughing all the way to the bank,” said Bob Barber, an economist with Florida Citrus Mutual, Florida’s largest growers group.

Consumers likely won’t see higher prices at the grocery store because of the large inventory levels from last year’s second-largest crop ever, agriculture economists said.

At the beginning of the month, there was a 43-week supply of frozen orange juice concentrate and a 24-week supply of not-from-concentrate juice available. Inventories are 18 percent higher than last year.

However, Steve Lezman, a spokesman for Tropicana, which purchases about a third of Florida’s orange crop, said it was too early to predict whether juice prices will rise.

The price of orange juice in recent years has become a lot less sensitive to grower prices and consumer demand because of consolidation in the grocery business and among orange juice processors. Retail prices never came down last season when growers received some of their lowest earnings in years.

“Since prices have been sticky to come down, I think they’ll be sticky on their way up,” said Tom Spreen, chairman of the Food and Economics Resource Department at the University of Florida.

Almost all of Florida’s orange crop is processed into juice. The state accounts for 80 percent of the orange juice supplied in the United States and more than a third of the world’s orange juice. With cash receipts of $1.2 billion in 2002, oranges are Florida’s second-most valuable crop, behind nursery and greenhouse products.

Exactly how many oranges were lost to the hurricane won’t be known until the U.S. Department of Agriculture issues its annual official estimate in October. This past week, the USDA estimated the loss for all Florida citrus — oranges, grapefruit and specialty fruit — at $150 million, or about 20 percent of the total crop for the upcoming season.

As for farmworkers, who begin picking the oranges in November, they may not find enough work to sustain them through June, when the season usually ends.

“We have no idea how it’s going to go this year,” said Cristina Avalos, 37, who with her husband, Jose Luis, is a farmworker crew leader. “Instead of having a long season, it’s probably going to be a lot shorter.”

Mr. Conley worried that no crew would want to pick his groves given how little fruit is left.

“You couldn’t get a crew in there if there are no oranges,” he said. “They’ll never pick them. It’s too much trouble.”

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