Wed, Dec 13, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Florida's orange farmers just love a good hurricane

By Andrew Clark  /  THE GUARDIAN , LAKE WALES, FLORIDA

Strolling through his orange groves, deep in the heart of Florida, farmer Frank Hunt permits himself a cautious smile. The commodity price of his fruit is at a 16-year high -- and the cost of a carton of juice on supermarket shelves is rocketing around the world.

"It has the makings to be one of our best seasons for many years," says Hunt, whose family has a 2,000-hectare citrus plantation on a ridge of sandy soil an hour's drive west from the Disney-inspired tourist traps of Orlando.

Ironically, his optimism is a result of a dismal crop. While farmers in most agricultural industries pray for a bountiful harvest, Florida's orange growers have been over-producing for years -- they barely scrape a living when their trees yield copious fruit. Fewer oranges mean higher prices and bumper profits.

"We haven't got back to full production," Hunt says, gesturing at his packing facility. "The crop this year is going to be the smallest for 15 years."

Dressed in a bright orange shirt and a belt decorated with alligators, Hunt, 78, can remember the days when mules hauled his oranges to the nearest cities, Tampa and Orlando. He cheerfully explains the life cycle of his plants.

"A citrus tree is very much like a person -- it can't do much on its own 'til it's five or six," he says. "From 20 to 40, it's in its prime. They die about the same age as us."

Usually, Florida churns out more than 200 million boxes of oranges in a season. This year, the US Department of Agriculture estimates that just 135 million will emerge. The root of the shortfall lies in four hurricanes -- Charley, Frances, Jeanne and Wilma -- which whipped across Florida in 2004 and last year. They weakened roots and blew off branches. The trees are now devoting extra energy to growing new leaves and less to bearing fruit.

To make matters worse, the strong winds blew an airborne bacteria across the peninsular spreading citrus canker -- a disease which causes lesions on fruit and ultimately kills trees.

For some farmers, the crisis was the last straw. After years of eking out a minimal living, they surrendered to property developers keen to build endless "assisted living" complexes for elderly sun-seeking Americans. All told, Florida has lost 17 percent of its citrus groves and the number of people working in the industry has fallen from 90,000 to 78,000. A 35 percent drop in the state's annual crop has meant that the world's orange supply has fallen by a fifth.

Just up the road from Hunt's farm is the juicing plant of Florida's Natural -- a co-operative owned by a thousand farmers which sells to supermarkets, including Britain's Wal-Mart-owned Asda. Sales director Walt Lincer says price rises are here to stay -- and he is anxious to justify them.

"We're not screwing the consumer -- we've been in the business of supplying at a loss for many years. Prior to the hurricanes, we were in a world of oversupply. Now we're in a world of undersupply," he said.

On the commodity markets, the cost of a tonne of concentrate has almost tripled from US$900 to US$2,550 since January last year. Shoppers are already seeing an impact and the British Soft Drinks Association expects price rises of 25 per cent in the new year. Nothing goes to waste at Florida's Natural -- oils from oranges are used in flavorings for cleaners and even the rind is recycled as feed for cattle. Juice is a precision business -- once pasteurized and packaged, a carton has a shelf life of just 70 days and transit time to Britain is a good three weeks.

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