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Bumper crop means lower juice prices

Orange juice will become less of an expensive afterthought at breakfast, thanks to Florida's unexpectedly robust orange crops and tumbling world citrus prices. The price of orange juice, which climbed as high as $4.59 a gallon in June, will fall 19 percent to $3.75 a gallon in the next three months, predicted Robert Behr, economic research director of the Florida Department of Citrus.

"Wholesale prices have already started falling earlier this month," he said. "Typically you'll see retail prices moderate with wholesale prices in three months or so."

Some grocery stores already report lower prices. A half-gallon of Publix brand orange juice fell from $2.99 last summer to

$2.19 this week, said Bob McDermott, a Publix spokesman. The major orange juice brands, however, have not shown big price cuts yet.

"All indications are they're going to drop (the prices)," he said. "We've got our fingers crossed."

Many consumers put off by high prices earlier this year might start buying juice again. Behr predicted orange juice consumption will grow 15 percent over last year's pre-freeze levels, with consumers drinking 1.34-billion gallons (or 5 gallons a person) this year.

"Florida will reassert itself as the dominant supplier," he told the Citrus Commission at a regular meeting. The quasi-governmental commission oversees the citrus industry's regulation, taxation and marketing.

Florida provides 90 percent of the nation's orange juice but only half the frozen concentrate used to make it. Brazil, the world's largest citrus supplier, provides most of the rest. This year, however, Florida growers will contribute 75.3 percent of the frozen concentrate.

They have the crops to do it. An Oct. 11 crop report showed 50-percent increases in orange harvests, which will fill 165-million boxes of oranges this season. (A box of oranges holds between 150 to 200 oranges, depending on the size of the fruit.)

Experts have said that denser crops, more productive trees and warmer locations _ mainly in the southern interior and around the east and west coasts _ contributed to the favorable forecast for Florida citrus this year.

The best is yet to come, Behr said. The industry should surpass orange harvesting records in the 1994-95 season, and grapefruit growers should break their production record next season _ provided that no major freeze or devastating hurricanes interfere, he said.

Florida could produce 217-million boxes of oranges by 1994-95, according to Department of Citrus estimates, which would top the record of 206.7-million boxes set in 1979-80. By the 2000-2001 season, orange production may reach 276-million boxes.

Grapefruit production is expected to approach 60-million boxes next season, which would surpass the 1979-80 record of 54.8-million boxes. By 2000-2001, grapefruit production is estimated to be 78-million boxes.

"Citrus growers certainly are recovering much faster than anyone believed possible," said Dan Gunter, executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus. "The production forecasts show that Florida will continue to be a major player in the world citrus markets."

Brazil, which annually harvests 300-million oranges, will continue to be Florida's major rival, Behr said.