WINTER HAVEN, Fla. (AP) -- As many Florida citrus growers have feared, the smallest orange crop in 24 years will get smaller as pre-harvest fruit drop continues to plague groves.
The Lakeland Ledger reports that the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Tuesday shaved 4 million orange boxes - or 3 percent - off the projected 2013-14 orange harvest.
This was the first monthly update since its initial Nov. 8 forecast. The new estimate is 121 million boxes.
"It's startling they took that many boxes off that quickly," said Marty McKenna, a Lake Wales-based grower and chairman of the Florida Citrus Commission. "We're having a rude awakening to the effects of citrus greening."
Greening is a bacterial disease that weakens a citrus tree and eventually kills it. Greening first surfaced near Homestead in 2005 and spread quickly throughout the citrus growing region.
Growers and scientists say they think most of the state's 69 million citrus trees are infected, with some estimates as high as 75 percent.
"Every (grove) block in the state is infected," said John Barben, an Avon Park-based grower with groves across central Florida. "I'm heartbroken."
Until last season, many growers thought they could hold out against greening by going to monthly pesticide spraying to control the Asian citrus psyllid, the insect host for the greening bacteria and the primary cause of the disease's spread. Most growers also adopted an "enhanced nutrition" regime of additional fertilizer applications that appeared to keep infected trees healthy.
Both strategies appeared to minimize greening's harmful effects until a year ago, when growers noticed their infected trees were dropping fruit before harvest at alarming rates. The USDA forecast fell 13 percent during the 2012-13 season, an unprecedented amount for a season not affected by freezes, hurricanes or other weather issues.
The USDA report cites historically low fruit size and record high pre-harvest drop - both of which McKenna and other growers attribute to the millions of trees infected by the citrus greening disease - as reasons for the reduction.
"Current droppage, above the maximum and steadily increasing, is projected to be highest in the series dating back to 1960-61," the report said. "Current size is below the minimum and projected to remain below the minimum at harvest."
The new estimate is still above the previous low orange crop of 110.2 million boxes harvested in the 1989-90 season because of one of the worst citrus freezes in the state's history. But six more months of harvesting remains in this season.