Orange Juice Prices to Spike Amid Wilma, Disease

Damage from Hurricane Wilma and disease in Florida citrus groves will drive orange juice prices higher, the industry and analysts said Friday.

Estimates for Florida's citrus harvest dropped 15 percent in the monthly crop report from the Agriculture Department, though the crop will still be about 8 percent better than last year when three hurricanes hammered citrus-growing parts of the state.

"That is way down from a more typical level," said Keith Collins, the department's chief economist.

Supermarket shoppers will see higher prices next month. Tropicana spokesman Pete Brace said the company expects orange juice prices to increase 10 to 15 cents per half-gallon starting around Jan. 1.

Prices already are at seven-year highs and could rise at least 5 percent in the near term, said commodities analysts Jeff Gordon at Alaron Trading and Kevin Sharpe of Basic Commodities. A pound of frozen concentrate costs about $1.30.

"The crop got hurt quite a bit, and the canker continues to be an ongoing problem," Sharpe said.

Citrus growers worry that the spread of canker, citrus greening and tristeza might do more damage than weather. Canker is also threatening nurseries in Florida.

"The whole citrus industry is facing a lot of problems besides just hurricanes," said Jay Clark, who grows cattle and citrus in Hardee County.

Wilma entered the state as a Category 3 hurricane and blew through the southern growing region with 125 mph winds. The new Florida orange forecast is 162 million boxes, or 7.29 million tons.

Nationwide, the orange outlook is down 12 percent at 9.44 million tons.

The weather was much better last month in other parts of the southeast, helping speed a cotton harvest expected to be the best ever, with record yields in Georgia, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.

Cotton production should reach 23.7 million 480-pound bales, the department said. That would surpass last year's record by 2 percent. Nationwide, the expected yield per acre of 832 pounds would be the second-biggest on record.

There were few changes to the outlook for crops such as wheat, corn and soybeans. However, sagging foreign sales of U.S. corn and soybeans pushed export forecasts down and raised ending stocks.

Wheat prices were forecast at $3.25 to $3.50 per bushel, down 5 cents on the upper end from last month's estimate. Last year's average was $3.40.

The price forecast for corn was unchanged from last month at $1.60 to $2 per bushel, compared with $2.06 last year.

Soybean prices were forecast at $5 to $5.70, compared with $4.95 to $5.75 last month and $5.74 last year.

The department said beef prices were up because supplies of choice-grade cattle stayed tight. Not included in the projections was the anticipation that Japan, once the biggest market for U.S. ranchers, may lift its ban this month.