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U.S. News

Florida citrus escapes worst, freeze alert stays high

MIAMI (Reuters) - Florida’s citrus crop again escaped widespread destruction from an overnight freeze, but some damage was reported to fruit, especially in northern growing areas, the main producers group said on Sunday.

Icicles hang from an orange tree after it was sprayed with water throughout the night in Plant City, Florida January 6, 2010. REUTERS/Scott Audette

Growers in the Sunshine State, which produces more than three-quarters of the U.S. orange crop and accounts for about 40 percent of the world’s orange juice supply, were preparing to endure another night of freezing weather on Sunday.

The state’s $9.3 billion citrus industry was spared severe damage during several nights of frigid temperatures last week caused by pockets of arctic air pushing south and giving Florida some of its coldest weather in more than a decade.

This even caused some flurries of snow and sleet in the U.S. state best known for its beaches and abundant sunshine.

“There are no reports of catastrophic damage at this point,” Andrew Meadows, spokesman for growers group Florida Citrus Mutual told Reuters on Sunday. The organization represents around 8,000 citrus growers across the state.

“We came through in certain areas ... I’ve heard some positive comments from some big growers in all of our growing regions, but again there are certainly reports of colder, lower-lying areas that sustained some damage,” he said.

Meadows said that in some northern growing areas overnight, temperatures had remained for hours below the key 28 Fahrenheit (minus 2 Celsius) level.

Typically, citrus crops get damaged if temperatures fall to 28 F or below for four hours or longer. When hit by freeze damage, affected fruit then rots when warmer temperatures return.

The latest freeze comes at the peak of the citrus harvest season, prompting a rush by growers to get their fruit off the trees and to the processing plants.

Some of the areas worst hit by freezing conditions were Lake County, southern Marion County and northern Polk County.

“So it’s a real mixed bag at this point,” Meadows added, saying it was still too early to give an accurate estimate of overall damage to the current crop.

“The northern area got hit a little bit harder ... we did get some frozen fruit up there,” he said. Murcott tangerines were among the fruit affected by the freeze.

WORSE FEARED SUNDAY NIGHT

Exhausted growers have been working through the night to try to ward off freeze damage to their produce. One method is to spray the trees with water. This, when the freeze kicks in, creates a protective coat of ice that conserves heat, keeps a tree’s temperature stable and helps prevent lasting damage.

One Lake County producer, John Arnold, owner of the Showcase of Citrus, told Orlando-based Central Florida News 13 TV he may have lost about 30 percent of his crop.

News 13 quoted Arnold as saying the ice he found on his crop varied from about 5 percent penetration, which made the fruit sweeter, to 30 percent, which made it unmarketable.

Arnold said fruits like tangerines had suffered most.

Private forecaster AccuWeather.com said that following a round of snow and sleet in some parts of Florida on Saturday and a hard freeze in central Florida on Saturday night, temperatures would drop even lower on Sunday night.

“Tonight, temperatures will plummet below 28 degrees for several hours in south-central Florida. Lows will be in the teens as far south as Ocala,” AccuWeather’s Meghan Evans said in a report.

Evans said that while the state’s citrus crop escaped the earlier cold blast last week with only minimal damage, the magnitude and long duration of the current weekend cold snap was likely to prove more damaging.

Concern over the freeze sparked a rally last week in frozen concentrated orange juice futures in New York.

Orange juice futures closed up at a two-year high above $1.50 per lb on Friday. The key March FCOJ contract jumped by its 10-cent daily limit to settle up at $1.5115 per lb, the highest level for benchmark futures since early January 2008.

Additional reporting by Chris Kelly in New York; Editing by Sandra Maler

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