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Even smaller Fla. orange crop seen

Florida's already hurricane-battered citrus crop is shrinking again.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture revised its orange crop forecast downward Wednesday by 6-million 90-pound boxes, down to 162-million, or exactly 80-million boxes below the near-record harvest last season. The USDA did not change its 13-million grapefruit forecast.

Florida Citrus Mutual, the largest association of citrus growers, said the numbers are down because of smaller than expected fruit and an increase in fruit drop from trees.

Tom Spreen, a professor at the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, said a large inventory of juice from last year's big harvest has so far kept consumers from seeing a big jump in juice prices.

But Spreen said that the harvest is now getting low enough that an impact may be seen in the supermarket.

"I wouldn't be surprised if we see a little bit of upward drifting on consumer prices," Spreen said. "Growers who have fruit are going to make money."

Some scientists have theorized that the smaller fruit being harvested now may actually have little to do with the hurricanes, Spreen said.

Instead, he said, some believe warm spring temperatures last year led trees to produce the smaller oranges.

Most Florida oranges are made into juice, and the state produces about a third of the world's orange juice supply. Florida is the nation's largest citrus producer.

The USDA released its initial crop forecast of 176-million oranges in October. It revises the forecast periodically through the season.