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US: Drought worries citrus farmers

Citrus growers have so far been relieved that the destructive torrents of rain and wind from hurricanes are absent from the mix of factors affecting this year`s crop.

Instead, growers face just the opposite: hot weather in the midst of a drought.

Florida`s citrus crop, estimated at 168 million boxes, is expected to meet the original October forecast, according to an update released this week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That`s a good sign for area growers. The lower supply of citrus, down from 230 million boxes in 2002-2003, allows them to get a good price on their fruit, said Andrew Meadows, spokesman for Florida Citrus Mutual.

`These prices couldn`t have come along at a better time because growers are having to spend more to produce their crops`, he said. The battle is still raging to combat the citrus greening and canker that spread with the wind and rain brought on by the hurricanes. Growers have been forced to spend money to treat and prevent the diseases in their groves, he said. But now, the drought has added another dimension to the challenges growers face because it causes trees to be vulnerable to damage when a freeze hits.

`There`s some concern across the state that with the dryness, a freeze may cause considerable damage that would not happen if we were getting proper rain,` Meadows said. Now that harvest time is here, Meadows said, the size of fruit may be smaller than normal due to a lack of rain, particularly when the later varieties come in February through May.

Local growers so far are finding their fruit to be normal this year. Bob Whisenant, a Manatee County citrus grower, said he will be able to tell more about the fruit when he begins to harvest it this week. He`s still hoping for a better year than last.
`The price was good last year, but there wasn`t much volume. Hopefully, it will be a decent year`, he said. Mac Carraway, vice president of SMR Farms, a division of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, also found the fruit is looking average-size with good quality.

SMR`s citrus crop has been reflective of the overall Florida forecast, he said. `We`ve been looking at our own groves and at the same time we were interested in seeing how the major forecast came out`, he said. `We`re up about 30 percent in our own groves from last year. That`s holding true as we`ve gotten into the first few weeks of harvesting early oranges.`

Despite the good news, the drought is a very real problem for growers and farmers.
`If we have a worry right now, it`s the amount of irrigation that we can apply. It`s simply not enough to give the tree what it would like to have`, Carraway said. `If we could get some rain, that would be some welcome relief.` While the dry weather is not conducive to the growth of canker, which prefers moist, warm temperatures, diseases are still very much a concern with the industry, said Barbara Carlton, executive director for Peace River Valley Citrus Grower`s Association.

Tristeza, a virus causing sour orange rootstock, is a problem that has existed in Florida for years, but the drought seems to aid its destruction. Growers are working to become more educated about how to prevent and treat the diseases, Carlton said. Still, the industry is optimistic in battling the diseases, hoping to come out stronger than before.
`We`ve got all these concerns and we`re working through them one by one`, she said.

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