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As some growers move out of area, most muddle through

Growers face increasing competition from Brazil in coming years and some are selling to developers. But plenty stay and see good fortune ahead.

By CHASE SQUIRES, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 16, 2003


DADE CITY -- The report last year revealed what anyone could see in Pasco County.

Homes are moving in and citrus is moving out.

An industry that battles winter frost, market fluctuations, bugs and overseas competition has consistently given ground to suburban development in Pasco.

For the fourth straight biennial census, Pasco's citrus acreage dropped.

This past year, the census, conducted by the Florida Agricultural Statistics Service, reported another dip -- this time 4 percent -- in land devoted to Pasco's citrus industry.

"When the property is worth more than the citrus, people will sell," state agricultural statistics manager Bob Terry said when the data was released.

According to the census, Polk County tops the list of counties with the most commercial citrus acreage at 100,202.

Around the Tampa Bay area, Hillsborough County is the top grower with 23,734 commercial acres, followed by Pasco with 10,467 acres, then Hernando with 1,046, Citrus County with 147 acres and Pinellas with 38.

The industry is a difficult one.

In addition to the challenges other Florida farmers face dealing with blasts of frosty air and unpredictable rainfall, citrus growers are also challenged to influence federal trade policies, Florida Citrus Mutual spokeswoman Casey Pace said.

While other farm groups lobby the federal government for special treatment, the citrus industry is unique in that it has not been helped by federal subsidies, Pace said.

As federal officials in Washington debate hemispheric trade pacts, the industry's worst nightmare could be open trade between Brazil and the United States. If the country were flooded with cheaper Brazilian juice oranges, growers in Florida would be in real trouble, she said.

"We're not a subsidized industry," Pace said. "Free trade works for most commodities, but orange juice is unique. There are really only two players, Florida and Brazil. You take away one player, it creates a monopoly."

With pacts expected to be in place by 2005, a downturn in Florida juice could leave the world dependent on juice prices set by Brazilian growers, she said.

Add citrus canker, which has crept north from South Florida and has made it as far as Orange County -- although it has yet to cross into Polk or Pasco counties. And blooming virus, called tristeza, which is spread by aphids, continues to threaten the crop, according to a report from the Florida Department of Citrus. The report predicts "a sharp increase in tree losses" in coming years.

It's a tough industry. But Pace said that after three years of depressed prices, the value of this year's crop appears to be creeping up. Price reports aren't posted until after the season wraps up in the spring, but Pace said the prices growers will get appear to have stabilized.

Growers remain concerned on several fronts, but the industry will endure, Pace said.

"We have our challenges; we've always had challenges," Pace said. "But lots of industries have challenges. Our growers are innovative. They're in it for the long haul. They're not going anywhere."

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