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Fruit producers shift south to escape freezes

St. Lucie County has displaced longtime leader Polk County as the center of Florida citrus production with the freeze-frightened industry shifting south, state officials say.

Statistics released Friday by the state Agriculture Department show Polk, the title holder for decades, was edged out by St. Lucie.

Ironically, Citrus and Orange counties are now misnomers.

Citrus County has so little fruit left that it is no longer considered a major producer.

Between freezes and urban sprawl, Orange County, with tourist-drawing Orlando at its center, also had dropped out of the picture.

"Citrus production is definitely changing in Florida," said Robert Freie, state citrus statistician. "The figures reflect a move to the south."

St. Lucie led citrus production in the 1990-91 season with 26.9-million boxes of fruit, followed by Hendry with 23.5-million and Indian River with 21.8-million. A box is 90 pounds of oranges or 85 pounds of grapefruit.

The new big three _ all south of Cape Canaveral _ accounted for 35 percent of all Florida citrus.

"According to the folklore here, Polk County has been first for as long as anybody can remember," said Mary Hartney, spokeswoman for the Florida Citrus Mutual growers' association in Lakeland. But Polk County lost 13,000 acres of citrus acreage in a single season as production dropped from 25.3-million boxes to 18.5-million.

Growers from Indian River County north were jolted by a 1988 freeze, and the whole peninsula was chilled by a Christmas 1989 freeze, which left many growers on the northern fringe of the Citrus Belt bulldozing their trees.

The shift may best be illustrated by the young trees not yet in production. In five southwest Florida counties _ Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry and Lee _ half of the 15-million new citrus trees are not bearing fruit yet, Freie said.