The good news is that supermarket officials expect to have sufficient supplies of oranges, grapefruit and other citrus available in their Washington area stores, despite last year's freeze in Florida and some scare headlines about the current outbreak of the contagious canker disease.
The bad news is that consumers probably will have to pay more for citrus -- because of the freeze, not because of canker -- although no one is quite sure how much the increase will be.
"There won't be any cheap Florida oranges this year," said Jerry Purdy, a produce specialist with Giant Food Inc. "But we don't think there will be a problem with supply."
Safeway representative Ernest Moore said that supplies should be adequate to satisfy demand but "we expect the cost to be higher; exactly how much, we don't know."
What has pushed prices up, marketing specialists say, is the loss in the December 1983 freeze of about 10 percent of the Florida citrus acreage. One survey indicated that Florida has 761,365 acres of citrus this year compared to 847,856 acres in 1982. That is a loss of 86,491 acres.
Orange groves were harder hit in the freeze than the hardier grapefruit trees, officials said, but no one is certain yet what the actual supply of citrus will be.
"It depends on the age of the trees that were lost," said Ben Huang, a U.S. Department of Agriculture economist who specializes in citrus. "If the loss was mostly young trees, it won't affect production as much as if it were older trees (which are more productive than younger trees)," he said.
Huang said more information will be available Thursday when the USDA releases its citrus supply estimates for the 1984-85 season.
The season for Florida oranges and grapefruit normally starts in October and continues through June. Although a major part of the orange crop ends up as frozen concentrate, the state also ships fresh juice oranges.
Local supermarkets now are selling California oranges and grapefruit. Safeway has Valencia oranges, two for 79 cents, and grapefruit, two for 99 cents. Giant has Valencia oranges, three for 99 cents, and grapefruit, two for 89 cents.
Florida fruit now is beginning to trickle out of the state but major shipments won't begin until the new crop has matured, said Bill Jones, public relations director for the Florida Citrus Commission. "Volume shipments will start in a few weeks," he said.
In keeping with USDA embargo rules, which are intended to prevent the spread of canker, Florida is shipping only fruit from groves certified free of canker and dipped in a chlorine solution that will kill any bacteria.
Consumers buying the fruit in the stores here needn't worry about taking special precautions before eating Florida oranges and grapefruit, however. That is because the packing plant is washing and waxing the fruit after the chlorine dipping and before shipping, Jones said.
As of yesterday, no evidence of canker had been found on producing trees. Instead, only seedling trees appear to have been affected.
Many of those small trees were intended to help replace producing trees destroyed in the freezes that have hit Florida the last three years and played havoc with its citrus production and prices.
In the 1983-84 season, for example, Florida produced 116 million boxes of oranges; the average wholesale price for a 90-pound box of fresh market oranges was $7.90. In the 1982-83 season, the state produced 140 million boxes of oranges; average wholesale price for fresh oranges was $5.94 a box. And in the 1981-82 season, the state produced 126 million boxes of oranges; average wholesale price was $6.51 for a box of fresh oranges.
Normally, it takes five to seven years for a citrus tree to begin producing after it has been planted.
But this year millions of seedling trees have been burned by agriculture officials trying to prevent the tree-destroying canker bacteria from spreading into the state's producing groves of oranges and grapefruit.
It's too early to know if they have succeeded, and it's too soon for the experts to predict the impact of the seedling tree losses on future Florida orange production.