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Florida citrus seeks to rise from a 1-2 punch

In a quiet, comfortable office lobby stands a bas-relief of A. B. Michael, founder of the Florida citrus growers' trade association. Under the likeness, framed by abundant green potted plants, reads the motto ''Don't fret.''

But no one doubts that the 13,200 grower-members of Florida Citrus Mutual have reason to fret now. And not only growers: Roadside-stand operators, citrus packers and processors, fruit shippers, and thousands of citrus industry employees are also very concerned.

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On the surface, Florida seems much the same as before the freeze last winter that destroyed 100,000 acres of citrus trees and the discovery this fall of canker in seven citrus nurseries. The sun still shines brilliantly in central Florida over acres of lush orange trees and on acres of luxury hotels, dotted with fast-food places.

But look a little more closely.

''Pick your own'' billboards along the highways sport black banners that read , ''Closed until November.'' Souvenir shops display empty shelves that once held boxes of fresh fruit to sell to thronging tourists. Sample boxes of fresh oranges and grapefruit, covered in heavy plastic wrap, are labeled ''for shipment to noncitrus-bearing states only.'' Instead of the juicy, fresh citrus fruit, the shops offer tourists only orange plastic imitations in the form of key chains or ashtrays.

''People get mad at me because we don't have any fresh oranges to sell,'' complains a saleswoman at one of many such stores lining Interstate 4 from Tampa to Orlando. One employee at the ''Citrus Tower'' at Clermont confides that the ''fresh'' orange juice she has just sold is last year's frozen product. After she runs out, she says, she'll will have to sell ''fresh juice'' reconstituted from concentrate.

Northward along Highway 27 to Ocala, acres of gray-brown citrus trees stretch beyond the horizon, only occasionally broken by green sprouts emerging from pruned-back stumps. An acrid smoke wafts through the air, reminding motorists of the burning of more than 4 million citrus ''resets'' in nurseries and groves.

These are the seedlings that were sought after by growers last spring to replenish groves damaged by the winter frost. About 10 million resets or replacement trees were needed this year, says Bobby F. McKown, executive vice-president of Florida Citrus Mutual, as opposed to the usual 2 million replacement trees.

The Florida citrus industry needs the nursery stock to recover from '83 freeze losses. But just as the seedlings were taking root, another problem surfaced. State examiners discovered evidence of canker disease in some nursery seedlings. The resulting quarantine will set back recovery from the freeze at least a year or two.

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Everyone from grove owners to government inspectors emphasizes that the canker has been detected only in nursery stock, not in the groves. So far there is no evidence that the canker has spread beyond the nurseries. ''That's a major positive as far as the industry's concerned,'' Mr. McKown says.

But this latest problem could delay the comeback of the industry long enough to allow Brazil to cement its hold on a large part of the orange juice market - a market carefully cultivated by Florida.

''We expanded the orange juice market,'' says Dr. Leo Polopolus, agricultural economist at the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida in Gainesville. ''You know, 'Orange juice isn't just for breakfast anymore'? And now Brazil is reaping the benefit.''

The Brazilian orange supply is one reason you probably won't notice much change in the price of your breakfast orange juice despite the woes of the Florida industry. The companies that buy and process Florida's oranges have been blending in Brazilian oranges to fill juice contracts. Lately Brazilian juice has been bypassing the Florida processing industry - and Florida state tax coffers - and flowing into tank farms in New Jersey.

''The question is, 'Who is going to be the market leader, Brazil or Florida?' '' says Polopolus.

That's the long-term question. Of more immediate concern: At the peak of the season (usually the third week in January), an estimated 160,000 Floridians bring home a paycheck from citrus directly or indirectly, says Dr. Dan Gunter, economic research director of the Florida Department of Citrus in Gainesville. It is impossible to tell just how much these recent problems will cost workers in the orange industry, especially those in the freeze-burned northern citrus counties. But it seems clear that federal and state relief agencies will be handling a heavier load this season.

The United States Department of Agriculture declared an ''extraordinary emergency'' last Tuesday, paving the way for the federal government to share with Florida the compensation of nursery owners for the loss of suspect trees. But this will not entirely cover the nurseries. The land under a quarantined nursery (even though the seedlings are burned) must lie fallow for two years before the operations can be resumed in the same location, says Dr. Bill Castle, chairman of the Florida Citrus Nurserymen's Association. And new nursery sites, besides being expensive, have to be approved.

The extra quarantine costs to packers may accelerate a trend already pushed by the freeze. Many northern Florida citrus packinghouses find they have been left behind as grove owners relocate into warmer, more southern climes. (The ''freeze line'' runs east-west roughly along Florida Route 50.) As the groves abandon frost-prone areas, higher transportation costs make some of these packinghouses uneconomic.

Dr. Polopolus shows a reporter a survey letter addressed to a Florida citrus packinghouse. It is stamped ''addressee unknown,'' and he says more letters than usual are so marked. He says smaller packers and processors may not be able to afford the special precautions required by the state to contain the citrus problem.

But the Haines City Citrus Grove Association - south of the freeze line - is one co-op that can afford the precautions and has already taken them. The co-op gives the fruit a chlorine solution ''bath'' before it is shipped out of state. ''We were fortunate that we had equipment that could be modified,'' shouts Bill Manuel over the clatter of dipping, size-sorting, and packing machines.

Mr. Manuel is director of operations at the co-op, one of the largest in the state. It manages the picking, transporting, and packing of citrus for grove owners. Despite the co-op's good fortune in having equipment, coping with the canker problem could cost member-growers up to $250,000, he estimates, for tarps to cover citrus transport trucks, for sprayers, more burning of resets, and planting of new resets.

Still, the growers are hanging tough. Most resident growers at a recent meeting indicated they did not want to sell their groves despite the problems. But cash runs short for some, buffeted by three hard freezes in recent years. Banks that have been shoveling out cash year after year for spraying and harvesting equipment may look askance at another request.

''We are picking up some indications that (the canker problem) is making lending institutions much more conservative,'' says Polopolus.

Some grove loans will be more than adequately secured by the value of the land, says banking analyst Samuel Beebe of Jerry Williams Inc., in Tampa.

Other analysts point to less secure loans. ''If you have a 1,000-acre row right next to Disney World,'' that land can be sold for development, says real estate broker Donald J. Holland, executive vice-president of the Board of Realtors in Winter Haven. But many growers, particularly those in northern Marion County, don't have that option. ''There's nothing there,'' he adds: no cities, no transplanted Northerners clambering to buy homes, and no high-tech jobs.

Growers tend to look at the long term, because of the nature of their groves. A seedling takes four years to start bearing and doesn't yield a full crop for 12 years. Grove owners have learned to wait out individual years of freezes, pests, and even artificial orange juice substitutes. Taking the long view, the industry tries not to fret.

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