by Marvin G. Perez and Bailey Lipschultz
Thousands of unripe oranges littered the ground at the Bereah Grove in Frostproof, Florida. Some trees were split, ripped from the ground or flooded in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. The grove is one of many owned by Alico Inc., the nation’s largest citrus producer, that were vulnerable in Irma’s path.
Joel Rivera, 65, an irrigation worker for Alico in Frostproof, said his biggest concern was the amount of fruit on the ground. "I’m not too worried about the trees themselves," Rivera said. "One tree is down here, one is flooded there, but the hurricane took a lot of fruit off these trees."
Alico, based in Fort Myers, said Tuesday that while most of the trees it has in eight Florida counties remain intact, there appears to be significant loss of fruit. In a statement, the company said it has yet to figure out the extent of the damage across the 47,000 acres of orange groves it owns or manages. It may take several weeks, Alico said. The company’s shares jumped 13% this week, erasing losses from Friday as Irma was reaching the mainland.
The storm that ravaged the state over the past week may have stripped off half the fruit on Florida’s trees, according to the state’s biggest citrus-growers organization, further reducing a harvest that was expected to be the smallest in 50 years. That could spell trouble for production next season in Florida, the biggest American source of juice oranges.
Orange-juice futures that were the lowest in 13 months as recently as July are up 21% since Aug. 30, when the hurricane first began to emerge in the Atlantic Ocean.
“The damage probably was worse than expected -- more extensive,” said Donald Selkin, the New York-based market strategist at Newbridge Securities, which manages around $2 billion. “It may last into future crops.”
Irma, the most devastating weather event ever in Florida, arrived just as growers were set to wrap up a harvest this month that would mark the fifth straight year of declining output. The spread of a tree-damaging disease called citrus greening, along with urban sprawl and periodic damage from hurricanes, has led to fewer acres of citrus trees. Farming costs are rising, and Americans are drinking less orange juice than they once did.
Still, analysts were expecting production to rebound a bit in the season that starts next month, after growers expanded techniques designed to limit the spread of greening. The Florida Department of Citrus had been expecting the 2018 crop could reach 75 million boxes, each weighing 90 pounds, or 41 kilograms. Now, that recovery appears unlikely.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture will issue its next crop forecast on Oct. 12.
“While the full extent of the impact is still being explored, this is definitely an event with very significant damage,” with next season’s crop likely to be “much less” than previously forecast, Shannon Shepp, the executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus, said in an emailed statement. “In some cases, growers are dealing with trees out of the ground.”
A lot of fruit was blown off trees, making it unusable, according to Florida Citrus Mutual, a Lakeland, Florida-based organization that represents 8,000 grower members.
Half of Crop
Michael Sparks, the group’s chief executive officer, said losses in the southwest region were reported at 50% to 75%, according to Citrus Industry magazine’s website. Nick Place, director of Florida Cooperative Extension Service in Gainesville, Florida, said in an interview that his agency’s survey of some growers showed losses of 30% to 50%.
Traders are expecting the damage to be widespread. Frozen, concentrated orange juice on ICE Futures U.S. in New York touched a four-month high of $1.5865 a pound Tuesday. It was 0.4% higher at $1.5780 at 8:03 a.m. local time Wednesday.
While prices are down from a year earlier, the rally this month and the prospect of fewer oranges from next year’s crop could mean higher costs for Coca-Cola Co., which owns the Minute Maid brand, and PepsiCo Inc., which sells the Tropicana brand.
Coca-Cola declined to comment on prices. A PepsiCo spokesman didn’t immediately return phone calls.
“Our juice operations are back up and running following Hurricane Irma,” Nancy Bailey, a spokeswoman for Atlanta-based Coca-Cola, said in an emailed statement. “While we are confident that we will be able to maintain continuity of supply to our customers, we are working closely with our suppliers as they assess the storm’s impact to their citrus groves.”
It’s been a difficult season for orange growers. Even after this month’s rally, prices are down 18% in the past year. That’s partly because rising imports from Brazil, the world’s largest grower, were expected to make up for any reductions in output from Florida, which accounted for 58% of the most current season’s domestic production. The state is also the biggest grapefruit grower.
Prices for fresh orange juice, favored by supermarket shoppers, will probably surge as soon as next week, said Burak Kazaz, professor of supply chain management at Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management.
The industry has been hit by devastating storms before. Hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne hit groves in Florida in 2004, followed by Wilma in 2005, damaging not just fruit but also trees, reducing the state’s production capacity. Many had to be replaced.
It takes a minimum of three years for a newly planted orange tree to begin producing fruit, though it often takes seven years before yielding a sizable crop. If Irma only damaged fruit, and not trees, the rally in prices will be short-lived, Kazaz, who has tracked the citrus market since 2001, said in a telephone interview from Syracuse, New York. Still, the western half of the citrus belt was in the direct path of the storm and has a high density of tree population, which signals big losses and less supply of the fruit favored by Americans.
“The futures price is not reflecting crop losses of 40% or 50%,” said James Cordier, founder of Optionsellers.com, as he waited in Cleveland, Ohio, for a flight to return to his offices in Tampa, Florida. “If the latest estimates for losses are accurate, prices may go 20 to 25 cents higher from where they are now. Americans will have to pay higher prices, or will have to get used to drinking Brazilian juice.”
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