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MIAMI (Reuters) - Central Florida citrus growers, already reeling from an unusually long freeze, reported more overnight ice damage to their orange fruit and groves on Tuesday, which they feared could also hurt the 2010/11 crop.
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, have been hit by more than a week of record low overnight temperatures caused by blasts of arctic air charging far south.
Florida Citrus Mutual, the state's biggest growers group, has acknowledged the citrus crop was hit by the sub-freezing temperatures at the peak of the harvest, but said it is too early to accurately estimate damage to the $9 billion industry. It also says ample inventories of orange juice still exist.
"After such a sustained period of cold, the damage has already been done," Florida Citrus Mutual spokesman Andrew Meadows said in an email to Reuters.
Another night of freezing temperatures raked citrus groves in some central interior and Gulf Coast areas of the state, local growers said Tuesday.
Typically, citrus can be damaged by four hours or more of temperatures below 28 Fahrenheit (minus 2 Celsius).
"Guys once again in some locations had 7 or 8 hours under 28 degrees again last night ... I talked to several growers who had in some of their locations their coldest temperatures of this 10- or 11-day event. We saw a lot of frost," Ray Royce, executive director of the Highlands County Citrus Growers Association in central Florida, told Reuters.
"We had some areas where guys cut quite a bit of ice in fruit," said Royce, whose group represents growers in the second largest citrus-producing county in Florida.
He predicted "significant fruit damage" from his area as a result of the prolonged freeze, one of the harshest to hit a U.S. state known for its beaches, fruit and abundant sunshine.
Barbara Carlton of the Peace River Valley Citrus Growers Association on Florida's central Gulf Coast also reported extended sub-freezing temperatures over Monday night, unusually affecting even coastal areas. "There is definitely going to be some fruit damage," she said.
This was expected to cut the productivity of the current harvest and reduce the juice content of the damaged fruit.
Carlton estimated the potential losses from her group's area alone could run into millions of dollars.
The U.S. Agriculture Department's monthly supply/demand report forecast Florida's 2009/10 citrus crop at 135 million (90-pound) boxes, unchanged from last month's estimate.
But the department said the report, which was released on Tuesday, did not reflect the recent damage because the data was compiled before the freezing weather struck.
"I would think that in February and March we are going to see a lot more decrease (in the USDA forecast) than what we've seen so far," said Carlton.
Both she and Royce said that leaf and twig damage inflicted by the current freeze could also hurt the seasonal flowering bloom on trees and the subsequent 2010/11 crop. But it was too early to be able to calculate long-term tree damage.
"I've been out every morning. There's been heavy frost. There's going to be some tremendous leaf damage ... I think leaves are dropping quickly and more is getting damaged and every bit of that is going to go into what those trees make for next year," Carlton said.
But farther south in the state, producers grouped in the Gulf Citrus Growers Association in southwest Florida appeared to have come through better. "My speculation is that people fared better than the night before," said spokesman Roy Hamel.
He said some growers in the areas worst affected by the previous severe Sunday-to-Monday night freeze had suffered fruit damage of around 10 percent to 12 percent.
Carlton said she expected rebounding temperatures in coming days would hasten the rush by growers to pick and salvage freeze-damaged fruit before it rotted and fell from trees.
In New York, orange juice futures firmed on investor buying as Florida's freezing weather was expected to moderate.
The key March contract advanced 4.55 cents, or 3.4 percent, to close at $1.3635 per lb Tuesday, after trading from $1.321 to $1.387.
For a graphic on Florida citrus production by county in 2007/08, click on: link.reuters.com/guh23h
Reporting by Pascal Fletcher in Miami and Rene Pastor in New York; Editing by Walter Bagley