Florida citrus growers say cold packs little punch

MIAMI Tue Dec 14, 2010 11:39am EST

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MIAMI (Reuters) - Florida's citrus growers reported little or no ice damage to their orange fruit and groves on Tuesday after temperatures dropped to near-record lows overnight.

"Things went kind of better than expected," said Ray Royce, executive director of the Highlands County Citrus Growers Association in central Florida.

"From an orange standpoint, a citrus standpoint, here in Highlands County, we certainly did not have anything catastrophic last night," Royce told Reuters.

"We came through pretty well last night," added Andrew Meadows, a spokesman for the state's leading growers association, Florida Citrus Mutual.

He said some orange growers had detected slush ice in their fruit, when they sliced open oranges to inspect for damage early Tuesday morning. But this was scattered and "there were no widespread reports of damage."

Temperatures dipped well below freezing in Highlands, the second-largest citrus producing county in the state. But they did not drop low enough, or long enough, to cause harm, Royce said.

Typically, citrus can be damaged by four hours or more of temperatures below 28 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 2 Celsius).

The ICE Futures U.S. January Frozen Concentrated Orange Juice futures contract was down 5.15 cents or 3.1 percent at $1.6180 per lb by 11:21 a.m. EST (1821 GMT), after hitting a session low of $1.6065.

The contract closed at a 3-1/2-year high on Monday, after hitting the 10-cent daily limit intraday, on fears about how much damage Florida citrus groves would sustain from the hard freeze that was in the forecast.

"Basically it stayed a little bit warmer at tree level than was being forecast last night," said Jack Scoville, analyst with The Price Futures Group in Chicago, about the reason why the market tumbled.

"A lot of times you get a freeze, and unless the fruit's totally lost, you get more concentrated orange juice," he added.

Citrus growers in the Sunshine State, which produces more than 75 percent of the U.S. orange crop and accounts for about 40 percent of the world's orange juice supply, were bracing for more blasts of arctic air that were expected to charge far south Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, however.

And it seemed unlikely that all would emerge unscathed from the record low overnight temperatures forecast to hit many parts of the state.

"Actually tonight is going to be even colder than what we had this morning," said Anthony Reynes, a forecaster with the U.S. National Weather Service in Ruskin, Florida.

"For Wednesday we're going to have lower 20s across much of the area, only closer to the coast is it going to be warmer. All across the central and interior portions, it's going to be like between 22 and 26 degrees. That's for at least three hours, and that's the criteria for what we call a hard freeze warning," Reynes said.

The only favorable thing about the harsh weather forecast for overnight Tuesday was that Monday's blustery winds were expected to have died down, said Meadows of Florida Citrus Mutual.

"The good news is there's not going to be any wind which should make it a good night to be able to run irrigation and that should give us a degree or two," he said.

(Reporting by Tom Brown. Additional reporting by Marcy Nicholson; editing by John Picinich)

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