Investors sold off orange juice futures Thursday after a federal government forecast a decline in Florida's orange crop won't be as severe as some predicted.
As much as 70 percent of Florida's citrus crop was devastated due to Hurricane Irma, the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association announced last month. That led other industry groups and some analysts to reduce their own estimates for citrus production in the state.
"Some had put out such low figures that it built into the market unreasonable expectations that were clearly off the mark," said soft commodities analyst Judith Ganes-Chase, founder and president of J. Ganes-Chase Consulting.
Florida's orange crop is used mostly for orange juice but also some gets sold to the fresh produce market.
Orange juice futures for November delivery fell 2.9 percent to $1.5795 a pound on the ICE Futures in New York. The price still is up about 16 percent in the past two months.
On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's crop production report forecast that Florida's orange crop for the 2017-2018 season would total about 54 million boxes — down about 20 percent from last season and the smallest crop seen since the 1940s. Still, that's well ahead of the 31 million boxes forecast Tuesday by the the Florida Citrus Mutual.
The USDA report represented the agency's first initial estimate of Florida's orange crop for the 2017-2018 season, so it could be revised later.
Florida Citrus Mutual, the state's largest citrus grower organization, based its estimate on grower damage surveys. The organization said it believes the USDA's initial estimate "could not accurately account for the full extent of the catastrophic damage from Hurricane Irma."
The citrus grower group added, "Historically, the USDA has a high margin of error in crop years with a natural disaster."
Florida Citrus Mutual CEO Michael W. Sparks said in a statement, "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. 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."
Before Hurricane Irma, Florida was expecting to harvest more than 75 million boxes worth of oranges, according to the Florida Department of Citrus.
In Florida, some citrus-growing areas faced peak wind gusts between about 60 and 80 miles per hour during Hurricane Irma. As a result, total citrus losses are expected to exceed $760 million, the state's agriculture agency announced Oct. 4.
Florida's orange crop production peaked about 15 years ago due in part to "citrus greening" disease. Last year, a study by the University of Florida estimated between 80 and 90 percent of the state's citrus acreage was infected by citrus greening, which is spread primarily by an insect the size of a grain of rice.
Major citrus growing regions of California also are fighting against citrus greening, which is formally known as huanglongbing.
In California, the orange crop also has suffered due to weather-related impacts. Heavy rains in the spring helped end the state's historic drought in most agricultural regions but also caused loss of blooms. Also, the citrus trees continue to feel the impact of years of drought conditions as well as salt accumulation in the irrigation water.
The USDA forecasts the California navel crop will be down 11 percent from last season's final total. California's navel crop represents around 40 percent of the state's total citrus production.
Due to the smaller crop in Florida and California, some are predicting higher prices for oranges this season at the nation's supermarkets. California's orange crop is primarily sold to the fresh market although a small portion gets processed for other purposes.
"The California citrus crop is smaller than it's been in the past five or six years," said Joel Nelsen, president of the California Citrus Mutual, which represents more than 80 percent of the state's citrus industry. "We're attributing that to two things: the rain in the spring knocked off a lot of blossoms and ... trees are still tired from the drought."
Still, Nelsen expects there will be enough mandarin and California navel oranges to meet demand for the winter holidays but prices will be higher due to Florida's woes.
Nelsen, who spoke to CNBC on Wednesday, added: "The unfortunate situation in Florida has reduced what little fresh tonnage they had in terms of oranges, so our prices are going to be a little higher this year."