* Growers see “considerable” damage to fruit, less juice
* Freeze hits crop, but too early to assess tree loss
* Orange juice inventories still judged ample (Updates with National Weather Service, orange juice futures)
By Pascal Fletcher
MIAMI, Jan 11 (Reuters) - Freezing temperatures mauled Florida’s citrus groves overnight, inflicting significant damage on the orange crop, producers said on Monday, although it could take weeks to see if there was long-term tree loss.
“I would say there was considerable fruit, twig and leaf damage,” said Andrew Meadows, spokesman for the state’s main growers group Florida Citrus Mutual, referring to reports from the worst-hit areas.
Although temperatures in the Southeast were expected to start rebounding this week, the National Weather Service was maintaining freeze watches and warnings for many of Florida’s central and northern counties for Monday night.
Losses in the state’s citrus crop may approach 10 percent, according to private forecaster AccuWeather.com. Its agricultural meteorologist Dale Mohler said Monday’s freeze “could be the worst the area has seen since 1989.”
Producers were rushing fruit to processing plants, but experts said freeze damage probably cut juice content.
“There’ll be reduced juice yield on some of this frozen fruit, no doubt,” said Meadows, but he added it was too early to give any accurate numerical estimates of the freeze impact.
Florida Citrus Mutual groups around 8,000 growers in the state, the biggest producer of oranges in the United States.
As dawn broke, anxious and exhausted growers were slicing fruit with knives to check for damage after spending long nights trying to protect groves from the freeze by spraying them with water and taking other defensive measures.
Orange juice futures, which had surged last week on freeze fears, tumbled on Monday on investor profit-taking on forecasts for more moderate temperatures on the way, analysts said.
The key March FCOJ contract OJH0 sank 19.30 cents, down 12.77 percent on the day, to close at $1.3185 per lb, trading down the 20-cent daily trading limit to $1.3115 with a session high of $1.464. On Friday, futures settled at $1.5115, the highest for the benchmark juice contract since January 2008.
Successive blasts of arctic air have hit the Sunshine State, famous for beaches, fruits and abundant sunshine. Several frigid nights last week had spared most of the citrus crop, but overnight saw the harshest freeze yet, growers said.
Florida supplies more than 75 percent of the U.S. orange crop. Its $9.3 billion citrus industry accounts for about 40 percent of the world’s orange juice supply.
It could be days or weeks before experts can assess tree damage that could hurt long-term citrus output, Florida Citrus Mutual CEO Michael W. Sparks said in a statement.
“Although production may be affected ... we still have ample inventories of orange juice,” Sparks said.
Florida Citrus Mutual said the north side of Florida’s citrus belt and the west side received the brunt of cold temperatures on Monday. There were reports of isolated damage in parts of the central region and Indian River region.
“Growers are cutting ice today,” Ray Royce, executive director of the Highlands County Citrus Growers Association in central Florida, told Reuters. “I would say that there is probably widespread light damage and some considerable to heavy fruit damage,” said Royce, whose group represents growers in the second largest citrus-producing county in Florida.
The U.S. Agriculture Department forecast the 2009/10 crop at 135 million (90-lb) boxes, the second lowest since 2000.
The freeze also could make it harder for citrus trees, already hard hit by diseases like citrus greening and citrus canker, to flower for the 2010/11 crop.
Barbara Carlton of the Peace River Valley Citrus Growers Association on Florida’s Central Gulf Coast said her group expected “significant” fruit damage to its current harvest.
Carlton also cited reports of leaf damage which could hurt development of the 2010/11 crop.
Overnight temperatures in many citrus-growing areas dropped below the key 28 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 2 Celsius) level. Typically, four hours or more below that temperature damages citrus crops.
Grower John Arnold of the Showcase of Citrus in south Lake County, who grows more than 50 varieties on 1,000 acres (400 hectares), told Reuters he had seen “30 percent penetration of ice in the fruit.”
But he added “it is not catastrophic, we still have citrus that can be picked.”
Kristen Gunter of the Florida Citrus Processors Association said the frozen fruit could still be processed for juice. “Everybody’s going full tilt. Everyone right now is focused on getting the early mid-season crop processed,” she said. (Additional reporting by Rene Pastor in New York; editing by Jim Marshall)