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High prices sour sales of Florida grapefruit

Grapefruit is in trouble again.

Last season, Florida growers got some of their best prices of the past decade, but consumption of the tangy fruit is waning. High juice prices caused a 14 percent decline in consumption recently, and shipments of grapefruit were down 9 percent last season from a year earlier.

The gloomy news came just a year after the prognosis was looking good due to the success of a marketing campaign by the Department of Citrus and a low inventory of grapefruit juice.

Because of that short supply, which occurred before the growing season that began in October 1999, grapefruit growers charged processors more, and the increases were passed along to consumers _ who then cut back their purchases. Suddenly, the low inventory became a hindrance rather than a help.

"They were a victim of their own success," said grower John Alexander, a member of the Florida Citrus Commission.

Grapefruit juice is now selling around $5.06 a gallon, a 42-cent increase over the price at the same time last year. Orange juice is selling for only $4.37 a gallon, a 9-cent increase over the same time last year; orange juice consumption is up 1.3 percent for the year.

In addition, traditionally weak fresh grapefruit sales are declining rapidly. Shipments of fresh grapefruit have declined by 15 percent in just the past two years.

Florida supplies about half of the world's fresh grapefruit and more than three-fourths of the grapefruit consumed in the United States.

Part of the problem was that last year's crop wasn't as attractive as usual. Inconsistent rain led to an erratic bloom, which caused fruit to be scarred, making them harder to sell. Growers are optimistic, however, that the quality of the upcoming season's crop will be much better.

Also, just as consumption was off, the industry had an unexpectedly large crop in the season that began last October.

Florida produced 53.3-million 85-pound boxes of grapefruit last season, a 13 percent increase over the previous season. The new growing season begins Oct. 12.

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