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Florida Freeze May Benefit Texas Citrus Growers

January 27, 1985

McALLEN, Texas (AP) _ A freeze that devastated Florida citrus crops could help the Texas citrus industry, still trying to overcome last winter’s killing freeze, by encouraging growers to plant more trees, some industry officials say. But others are skeptical.

Florida’s freeze, described as the worst in a century, should be a ″big shot in the arm″ for Texas, said Ray Prewett, a spokesman for Texas Citrus Mutual, a growers’ association.

Some farmers who never replanted after the Texas freeze may now plant more acres in anticipation that Florida could become a less vigorous competiter.

A killer freeze that moved through the Rio Grande Valley during Christmas week 1983 decimated last year’s crop, destroyed half of the fruit-bearing trees and severely damaged the rest, said Les Whitlock, manager of the Texas Valley Citrus Committee.

The freeze left behind 35,000 acres of trees incapable of producing fruit this year and thousands of acres of saplings that will take at least five years to become commercially productive, said Whitlock.

″The outlook (in Texas) is terrifically strong for a long time,″ said Gilbert Ellis of Valley Productions Care Inc.

But other Texas growers are pessimistic.

Florida has suffered four damaging freezes in the last five years and has seen its crop reduced by as much as 40 percent, but Texas has seen no substantial benefits, some growers say.

″The cost of getting into this game is so high, and it takes so long to realize returns,″ said Harlan Bentzinger, manager of Lake Delta Citrus Association in Weslaco. ″They all know Florida can come back as fast as we can.″

Bentzinger and others also say that Florida, with more than 800,000 acres of citrus cultivation, has never considered Texas, which had just 69,000 acres at its pre-freeze peak, as competition.

″Always before, when Florida had some problems, people get their hopes up, and it seems many times it didn’t amount to anything as far as we’re concerned because our production is such a small percentage of United States production,″ said Ross Smiley of Smiley Grove Care Inc. of Mission.

Florida, the nation’s top citrus-producing state, turned out 140 million boxes of oranges and 40 million boxes of grapefruit in 1982-83. Texas, third in overall citrus production, produced 6 million boxes of oranges and 12 million boxes of grapefruit, according to Texas Valley Citrus Committee figures.

California, which has more than 200,000 acres under cultivation and rarely suffers a freeze, is the second-largest producer, and Arizona, with 43,000 acres of citrus, is fourth.

″I don’t think what happened in Florida this week is going to change 10 acres of planting in this valley,″ Bentzinger said.

Meanwhile, the Florida freeze prompted some growers and officials to predict an acceleration in the gradual southward shift of the state’s citrus industry, established in northern Florida a century ago.

″From now on, Orlando is going to become the northern edge of the citrus belt,″ said Larry Loadholtz, an agricultural extension agent in Volusia County, Fla., which is northeast of Orlando.″As far as we’re concerned, we’re out of the commercial citrus industry.″

Bill Dellecker, general manager of the McBride Packing Co., about 50 miles north of Orlando, echoed other area growers when he said, ″We’re not sure we’re going to continue forward in the next couple of years.

″We’re at the point where we cannot afford to lose an investment we make to try to get back in business.″

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