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US: Citrus harvesting season gaining speed

With Tropical Storm Noel on a track to spare Florida a late season slap, the state`s citrus growers, juice processors and fresh-fruit shippers celebrated Monday as the harvesting season gains speed.

`Thank goodness,` said Donna Garren , executive vice president of the Florida Gift Shippers Association, based in Orlando. The association`s 50 members statewide start shipping seasonal fruit varieties such as navel oranges and grapefruit on Nov. 14, and the gift-fruit holiday shipping peaks in late December.

The orange-juice industry in Florida, the world`s second largest after Brazil, also felt the immediate effect of the storm`s track forecast away from Florida: orange juice futures fell to a two-week low, good news for potentially lower prices.

Even if the storm does brush the state, it should bring only beneficial rain, specialists said, helping both the fresh-fruit sector and the far larger juice industry.

Orange juice futures prices are down about 30 percent this year, and while that does not necessarily translate directly to lower retail juice prices, it does carry that potential and at least means prices in the near future should not continue to rise.

Futures prices are one way growers and processors track the market`s commodity price through a central market and the direction that prices are heading. Futures contracts also can be used by growers and juice processors to hedge against price swings in the cash market, in essence a form of insurance.

Florida`s citrus groves, spanning more than 600,000 acres spread across more than 30 counties, were hammered by high winds from hurricanes in 2004 and 2005 and are only now truly recovering. The U.S. Department of Agriculture`s first official crop forecast of the season, released earlier this month, projects the industry will harvest 168 million boxes of oranges by the time the season ends next summer.

That would be a significant improvement from the 129 million boxes picked in the past season, but still well below the seasonal averages of more than 200 million boxes during the 1990s, before hurricanes, citrus canker and urban growth led to the loss of thousands of trees and acres of fruit. Each box is equal to 90 pounds of fruit, so that means about a ton of oranges for every 23 boxes.

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