MIAMI (Reuters) - A second major hard freeze this month iced up oranges and other fruit across Florida’s citrus growing regions, causing some fruit damage and raising fears of longer-term impact on groves, growers said on Tuesday.
“We’re hearing reports of frozen fruit across all our growing regions ... We definitely had some damage,” Andrew Meadows, spokesman for the state’s leading growers association, Florida Citrus Mutual, told Reuters.
It was the second significant hard freeze to maul orange and other citrus groves in Florida in two weeks, and farmers fretted over the icy temperatures coming early in the Sunshine State’s winter, at a time when trees are heavy with fruit.
Meadows described the reported damage as “all anecdotal at this point”, saying it was impossible to immediately quantify the overall impact on Florida’s $9 billion citrus industry, which was also hit by freezing weather in January last year.
“I don’t think it’s catastrophic,” he added.
He expected any impact to show up in later U.S. Department of Agriculture revisions of the Florida citrus crop. The Sunshine State yields more than 75 percent of the U.S. orange crop and accounts for about 40 percent of the world’s orange juice supply.
With temperatures expected to rise quickly again later this week, there were also concerns about freeze-hit fruit dropping from trees and rotting, and farmers were stepping up efforts to harvest their damaged fruit and get it to market.
“Growers are scrambling to get the fruit out of the grove into the processing plant,” Meadows said.
He added his organization was asking Florida’s governor to extend for two more weeks an easing of restrictions on the weight of transport vehicles on the highways hauling harvested produce to market.
Growers in Florida’s Highlands, Hardee and Polk counties, among others, reported heavy frost coating the citrus groves.
“There’s frost everywhere ... it looks like Winter Wonderland out there,” said Edward Schwartz, who works at Larry Davis Inc in Wauchula, Hardee County.
In some areas, ice had penetrated the fruit, which can reduce juice yield, growers reported.
“Some guys are telling me they are cutting really solid ice in some fruit ... they are already seeing juice loss, this is going to amplify that,” Ray Royce, executive director of the Highlands County Citrus Growers Association in central Florida, told Reuters. Highlands is the second-largest citrus producing county in Florida.
TWO FREEZES IN DECEMBER
Despite the news of the freeze however, orange juice futures ended lower on Tuesday for the first time in seven sessions as profit-taking hit the market.
The key March frozen concentrated orange juice contract sank 6.95 cents, or 4.1 percent, to close at $1.6175 per lb, dealing from $1.615 to $1.664.
The National Weather Service warned of another cold weather snap on Wednesday morning for swathes of central Florida.
Florida growers said they were worried about the recurring incidence of frost coming early in Florida’s winter and then striking again, which could inflict more lasting, cumulative damage on the citrus groves.
“We usually don’t really get anxious until January, and certainly to have two freezes in December is problematic,” Florida Citrus Mutual’s Meadows said.
Royce said there was concern the freezes could cause leaf and small twig damage,” he added, although he did not see serious “killing” damage to the trees themselves. Leaf and twig damage can affect tree development and the next season’s crop.
Typically, citrus can be damaged by four hours or more of temperatures below 28 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 2 Celsius).
Jennifer McNatt of the National Weather Service in the Tampa Bay area said temperatures had fallen below 28 degrees in several citrus growing areas.
In Polk County, Florida’s biggest citrus producing county, there was “some isolated damage,” said Adam Pate of Statewide Harvesting and Hauling, which harvests for Dundee Citrus.
“The temperatures are supposed to rise and that’s always a concern, that fruit will drop prematurely,” he added.
Barbara Carlton of the Peace River Valley Citrus Growers Association, which covers several west central counties, said she also expected “some damage” and was worried about the risk of fruit drop if temperatures rise sharply again.
“The fruit will drop, begin to decay, we have to get it in before that happens,” she said.
Grower John Arnold of the Showcase of Citrus in southern Lake County said successive frosts and freezes could strip citrus trees of their protective, insulating foliage.
“It’s like a scab, you keep adding insult to injury ... we still have a longways to go yet this winter,” Arnold said.
Additional reporting by Rene Pastor in New York; Editing by Sofina Mirza-Reid
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