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Citrus Forecast Improves But 'Trying Times' Remain

Citrus growers received some good news about the outlook for this year's crop, but the long-term prognosis remains dire for the industry threatened by greening disease.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's monthly forecast, released Wednesday, predicted that this year's Florida orange harvest will be enough to fill an estimated 71 million boxes, an increase of 2 million boxes from February. But, even with the revised forecast, the season remains on pace to be the worst for the citrus industry in five decades.

Meanwhile, the forecast for grapefruit production also rose slightly, with estimates set at enough fruit to fill 10.7 million boxes. In February, the outlook was 10.5 million boxes. A box of fruit used in the estimates weighs 90 pounds.

“Although heartening, today's slightly improved citrus crop forecast does not change the fact that the future of Florida citrus depends on a breakthrough in the fight against greening," Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said in a press release. "Until that scientific breakthrough comes, I will use every tool in the toolbox to support Florida citrus and its more than $10 billion economic impact on our state.”

Lawmakers have set aside $8 million in next year's state budget to help fight citrus greening, one of the leading causes of the industry's decline.

In addition to the greening research money, the proposed state budget --- expected to be approved by the Legislature on Friday --- also earmarks $14.7 million for a citrus health response program within the Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services.

Shannon Shepp, executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus, called the USDA update "a bright spot during a trying time for many growers."

"We know all too well the devastating toll citrus greening continues to take on the industry but look forward to more positive reports in the future as research delivers new tools to wage the war in our groves,” Shepp said in a press release.

The state funding package also includes $49.1 million for the Department of Citrus, which has faced a call from big citrus growers to further shrink administrative operations. The funding includes $700,000 for the development of new citrus varieties; $7 million for consumer awareness campaigns; and money for 48 employees, according to a Senate analysis of the budget.

Seeking a reduction --- until the crisis is averted --- on a tax growers pay that helps to fund the Department of Citrus, a group of large growers wants to slash the agency's administrative costs from $29.9 million to $7 million, and trim staff to 10 workers.

Growers now pay 23 cents per box of juice oranges, while grapefruit for juice draws 19 cents per box. The request to lower the tax rate is expected to be discussed at a Florida Citrus Commission meeting next Wednesday.

The latest forecast follows a citrus greening crisis declaration Putnam issued on Friday that will allow the industry to temporarily use three chemicals to fight the disease.

The three antibiotics, still under review for a "special use exemption" by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have shown signs of controlling citrus greening, according to Putnam.

“The citrus industry has experienced a 71-percent decline in citrus production since the 1997-98 season," Putnam said in a press release last week. "Citrus growers cannot suffer any further delay for the approval of these products --- the only new treatment options --- to help fight citrus greening.”

Putnam has been working with farmers and lawmakers to help the industry through proposals that would include a cost-sharing program for the removal or destruction of abandoned citrus groves as a way to eliminate material that harbors the citrus greening disease.

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