By Doug Ohlemeier, The Packer

Rebounding from years of hurricane damage, Florida avocado grower-shippers expect a big boost in production.

Volume is expected to be twice as much as last season's.

Floridas' pickings normally start in late May and pick up with promotable volume during mid-June and July. The deal ends in March.

The state is expected to ship 950,000-1 million bushels or 4.4 million equivalent 12.5-pound flats, said Alan Flinn, administrator of the Homestead-based Florida Avocado Administrative Committee, which oversees the federal Florida avocado marketing order.

Last year, the state's grower-shippers, centered in Miami-Dade County, packed 520,792 bushels, or 2 million equivalent flats.

"We are expecting a very good season," Flinn said. "We got by last year better than we expected. Our main concern has been keeping the hurricanes away."

Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma, which struck Florida in fall 2005, damaged trees and caused the state to produce about half of the normal crop last year.

Though some growers had already begun early pickings May 14, Homestead-based grower-shipper Brooks Tropicals Inc. had not finalized its start, but was considering to begin harvesting by May 28, said Mary Ostlund, director of marketing.

"We're so excited about this year's crop of SlimCados," she said. "This year, we?'e back. After two years of slim pickings because of Wilma and Katrina, the SlimCados are back," Ostlund said.

Brooks grows and ships its SlimCado line of avocados.

Neal Palmer "Pal" Brooks, Brooks' owner, in mid-May saw many good-looking flowers with fruit on them, Ostlund said.

"Based on what we see flowering and what we see in the fruit actually growing, we think it will be a good year," she said. "Quality should be excellent."

Brooks expects to ship 550,000 bushels or 2.2 million equivalent flats this season, about half of the deal's avocados.

Herbert Yamamura, general manager of New Limeco LLC, Princeton, Fla., said he was expecting higher production from the maturing of 400 acres of groves planted in 2000 after the citrus canker disease gutted south Florida's lime production.

"The yield will really be picking up," he said. "We should have one of the best crops in a long time."

Because shipments had not begun yet, the U.S. Department of Agriculture wasn't reporting Florida prices in mid-May.

Last season, Florida's deal started at $16 per 12.5-pound flat in June. By late July, prices had declined to $12 a flat.

Florida shippers received $10-12 per flat during the months of last season's deal, Yamamura said.

Because of this year's increasing volume, Yamamura said he expects prices in July to fall to around $8 a flat.

The continuing drought that has scorched south Florida hasn't harmed this season's avocados. The lack of natural moisture, compared to irrigated water, has produced a heavier than normal crop and means the fruit won't size up as fast as in the past, Yamamura said.

That lack of water means New Limeco doesn't expect to start its harvest until early June, about two weeks later than normal, Yamamura said.

Except for the lack of sufficient rainfall, the growing season has been free of damaging freezes and hurricanes, Yamamura said.

This season, New Limeco plans to ship 200,000 bushels.

Florida's avocado sizings vary throughout the season but normally, the 7s, 8s, 9s, 10s and 12s dominate the deal, he said.

New Limeco expects to begin picking the simmonds variety, one of the larger-sized avocados, June 18, Yamamura said.

Early season pickings normally produce smaller-sized fruit while later season avocados hit the larger sizes.

In July, 12s are common while 9s hit in September, Brooks' Ostlund said.

The drought hasn't hindered Brooks' avocados, Ostlund said.

Though this season hasn't been a banner year for rain, Brooks has come out okay, she said.

Though shippers pack Florida avocados in half-bushel and 4/5-bushel containers, they ship a majority of them in the quarter-bushel or flat containers, Flinn said.

Because of a lack of funding, the avocado administrative committee hasn't conducted any recent acreage surveys and Flinn declined to provide acreage information.

Florida produced an average 6,000 bearing acres since the 2000-01 season, 9% of U.S. avocado acreage, according to USDA.