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USDA estimates Florida's citrus yield at 54 million boxes

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a rosy prediction for Florida's orange crop yield — but Florida stakeholders don't believe it. At 54 million boxes, Thursday's federal estimate is nearly double the figure that citrus trade organization Florida Citrus Mutual projected previously.

The federal figures, which were announced on a noon conference call, are one of the first official indicators of the scope of damage that Hurricane Irma inflicted on the state's citrus industry.

They are also significantly sunnier than industry groups say they should be. In a survey of Florida growers conducted after Hurricane Irma, Florida Citrus Mutual estimated that Florida's orange yield would be 31 million boxes, the lowest count since 1942.

Florida orange crop expected to be lowest in 75 years

"I'm disappointed the USDA did not delay the traditional October crop estimate until more data could be collected to fully assess the damage wrought by Irma," said Michael Sparks, CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual, in a statement. "Irma hit us just a month ago and although we respect the skill and professionalism of the USDA, there is no way they can put out a reliable number in that short time period."

Ahead of the release, Adam Putnam, commissioner for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said Wednesday in Washington, D.C., that he puts "zero stock" in the federal figures. He reiterated that sentiment in a softer-toned Thursday release.

"I am concerned that today's forecast does not accurately estimate the damages to our industry, given that groves are still under water and fruit is still dropping from trees," he said. "It's important to recognize that the damage to Florida citrus is still unfolding, and will continue to for some time."

Contact Malena Carollo at mcarollo@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2249. Follow @malenacarollo on Twitter.

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