Despite the end of a significant Florida drought, a forecast wetter-than-average winter by meteorologists could spell trouble for the 2009-2010 Florida citrus crop and could result in higher orange juice prices at your grocery store.

The United States is one of the largest producers of oranges and orange juice in the world, second only to Brazil. Florida leads the way among production in the U.S. Recent and ongoing drought-busting rain has come to the aid of Florida citrus growers, as well as firefighters, residents and business owners.

Drenching rain continues over a large part of Florida, including the orange groves. The drenching rain is too late for the 2008-2009 citrus season, but could aid the 2009-2010 crop. Most Florida oranges are harvested during the dry season from mid-November through mid-February. The typical dry season begins during the midautumn and extends through much of May.

The drought, which spanned well beyond this past winter, had roots into 2008, and even 2007 in parts of Florida. In some counties, rain through the end of this week into the weekend will completely wipe out the rainfall deficit. Up until this past weekend, rainfall had been less than 50 percent of the dry season normal. In some cases, rainfall was less than 25 percent of average.

A lack of rainfall from last autumn through the winter negatively affected the amount of fruit harvested. Prior to the rainfall of the past week or so, some of the citrus trees were showing the effects of the drought in the form of wilt. While less rain is needed as the oranges are ripening, compared to when the fruit is growing, little or no rain during the ripening stage can lead to tree stress and fruit loss.

Despite the lack of rain and a couple of brushes with freezes this past winter, production of Florida oranges this season was only slightly lower than the 2007-2008 season, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Many grove owners were able to irrigate to make up for the lack of rainfall. Water restrictions this past season forced some grove owners to switch to limited production techniques. Too much irrigation can deplete ground water supply and cause water quality to deteriorate.

An El Niño is forecast by this winter. During a typical El Niño winter, the weather pattern is wetter and stormier than average in Florida. While some rain would be welcome, too much rain can lead to disease, fruit and root rot and mold problems.

Recall that in 2007, orange juice prices soared as U.S. citrus production dropped due in part to citrus canker, a disease spread by the wind. Florida hurricanes in 2007 spread the disease to the point beyond containment. Any tree within approximately 2,000 feet of a tree that tested positive for canker had to be destroyed. Many trees have not been replaced since the loss. According to the Florida Department of Citrus (FDOC), the number of bearing orange trees is at the lowest level since the 1992-1993 season.

According to the Hurricane Center, the number of Atlantic Basin tropical storms/hurricanes is expected to be below average this season.

However, while the number of storms may be down, many of the systems are expected to form relatively close to the U.S. coastline, and some could strike Florida. The current system affecting Florida has failed to show full tropical characteristics. The system is currently generating significant rain, but only modest wind to parts of the Sunshine State and its neighbors on the Gulf Coast.

The FDOC is anticipating lower orange production for the 2009-2010 season compared to this season, due in part to weather related concerns.

Story by Expert Senior Meteorologist Alex Sosnowski