UPDATE 2-Freeze hurt Florida orange crop, USDA says

Tue Jan 18, 2011 4:12pm EST

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* 12 pct to 38 pct of oranges had at least minor damage

* Damage was more than juice traders expected

* Vast majority of orange trees had no damage

(Adds trader comment, data from report)

By Jane Sutton

MIAMI, Jan 18 (Reuters) - About 38 percent of Florida's early- and mid-season oranges and 12 percent of its late-season oranges had at least minor damage from a pair of December freezes, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said on Tuesday.

Most fruit damage was minor, and the vast majority of the state's orange trees escaped with no leaf damage at all, the USDA said.

The data reflect a special survey conducted last week. Florida's $9 billion citrus fruit industry was hit with several days of below-freezing temperatures during two cold snaps in December.

Last week, the USDA cut its Florida orange crop forecast for the 2010-2011 season by 3 million boxes, to 140 million 90-pound boxes. That was down 2 percent from the Dec. 1 estimate, but still 5 percent larger than last year's crop.

Juice traders said Tuesday's damage estimate was higher than they expected. They estimated the USDA would cut the crop estimate by another 2 million to 4 million boxes in its next monthly forecast.

"I don't think we priced that in," said James Cordier, an analyst for brokers optionsellers.com in Florida. "We should test $1.80 (per lb)."

The key March frozen concentrated orange juice contract OJH1 closed Tuesday up 2.35 cents at $1.754 per lb.

Analysts said the numbers mentioned by the USDA likely mean more than 5 million boxes were lost to the freeze in Florida.

"This past December was one of the coldest in Florida's recorded history ... The extreme weather caused significant crop loss and damage across our state," Florida's congressional delegation said in a Jan. 13 request to the USDA for an agricultural disaster declaration.

USDA surveyers cut into the fruit to check for damage at various depths.

Most of the damage was in the outer portion of the fruit. Only 4.5 percent of the early-season oranges, 6.4 percent of the midseason oranges and less than 1 percent of the late-season oranges had "major" damage at the center.

For the trees, more than 80 percent of the early and midseason varieties and more than 90 percent of the late-season varieties had no leaf damage at all.

(Additional reporting by Rene Pastor in New York; Editing by David Gregorio)

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