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Florida's Orange Crop In "Free Fall"

TALLAHASSEE — The outlook for production of Florida oranges, the state's signature crop, continues to drop.

For the second consecutive month, the Florida orange-harvest forecast for the 2015-2016 growing season was adjusted down Wednesday by the National Agricultural Statistics Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"It's essentially in free fall," Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said Wednesday while outlining some of his priorities for the 2016 legislative session.

Among those priorities, Putnam reaffirmed a request that state lawmakers invest $8.5 million to research citrus diseases that are impacting Florida's crops. He also continued to push for the federal government to provide additional research funding.

Putnam said the federal funding is appropriate because different diseases that have impacted the agricultural industry ---citrus greening, citrus canker, Asian citrus psyllid and laurel wilt fungus --- were able to enter the state through federal checkpoints.

"The ports of entry, the gateway areas was where the breakdown occurred," Putnam said.

Some members of Congress have taken steps to try to address the issues.

U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., and U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Fla., introduced legislation last month that would provide tax incentives to farmers who cannot afford to replace trees affected by citrus greening.

If the citrus forecast holds, Florida orange production will be down nearly 30 percent over last season, the Florida Department of Citrus said in a release.

"It is still early in the season and we have learned that forecasts can be fluid," Department of Citrus Executive Director Shannon Shepp said.

The season's outlook was already dire when the initial forecast was made for the growing season.

In mid-October, the USDA service predicted Florida's orange crop would fill 80 million 90-pound boxes, a 17 percent drop from 96.8 million boxes filled in the prior season.

A month ago the forecast was lowered to 74 million boxes. On Wednesday that figure was dropped to 69 million boxes.

The USDA service noted that the forecast season would be the worst for Florida since 1963-1964.

Seasonal production peaked in the 1997-1998 season when 244 million boxes were filled.

The USDA service has also decreased the projection for grapefruit production in Florida from 12.2 million boxes in November to 11.5 million boxes.

The state Department of Citrus said the grapefruit production reflects what officials are hearing from farmers.

"As peak season approaches, growers continue to be very happy with the eating quality of this year's grapefruit crop and the department remains dedicated to promoting their signature product to consumers around the world," Michael Schadler, the department's director of international marketing, said in a prepared statement.

Before the 2015 legislative session, Putnam, who grew up in the citrus and cattle industry in Polk County, asked the Legislature for $18 million to address the citrus industry's needs, which included growing clean citrus stock and planting new trees where diseased trees had been removed.

Lawmakers responded by giving him $8 million, which was an increase from the $4 million in 2014.

The News Service of Florida is a wire service to which WUFT News subscribes.