With projections that more oranges and grapefruits will be produced in Florida over the next nine months, the state Department of Citrus got a slightly bigger budget Wednesday.

With a relatively optimistic forecast for the growing season, the Florida Citrus Commission approved a staff request to increase the department’s budget for the recently started fiscal year by nearly 4 percent.

The change came after the U.S. Department of Agriculture projected this month that citrus growers in Florida will produce 75 percent more oranges, grapefruit and other specialty crops in the current 2018-2019 season compared to the Hurricane Irma-ravaged harvest in the 2017-2018 season.

The increase to the budget — up $1.23 million from the 017-2018 year — came without altering a 7-cent-per-box tax growers pay on juice oranges, grapefruit, tangerines and tangelos. The rate also stayed at 5 cents per box of fresh oranges. The box tax helps fund the Bartow-based Department of Citrus.

In 2016, the agency reduced the box tax to the current rates from 23 cents on processed oranges and 19 cents on grapefruit. That reduction was in response to the industry’s continued decline, due primarily to deadly citrus greening disease.

The agency funding also includes $5.65 million from the state, up $1 million from the previous season, and $3.65 million through the U.S. Department of Agriculture for international programs. The federal funding is down $240,000 from the 2017-2018 year.

The budget for this year had been tentatively set at $17.68 million in June, but the change approved Wednesday represents an increase to $18.33 million.

The additional money in the budget would primarily be directed to reserves, but it also provides $75,000 to promote fresh oranges in Canada, $35,000 for staff raises, $5,000 for scientific-research training and $10,000 for print ads promoting fresh oranges.

Shannon Shepp, executive director of the Florida Department of Citrus, said $630,628 now in reserves, increased by $447,151 on Wednesday, would cover growers falling short on the latest projections by about 10 percent.

“That will cover any decrease we have to the crop size or weather incidents,” Shepp said.

The department had based its initial budget numbers for this year on growers producing enough citrus to fill 65.095 million 90-pound boxes – a standard industry measurement.

The Oct. 11 federal forecast, the first of the season, estimated that the industry will fill 86.9 million boxes over the next nine months.

Florida Citrus Commission Chairman Ellis Hunt said Wednesday growers remain optimistic by the initial crop outlook.

“The trees look good, there is noticeably more fruit, and the tree health is encouraging,” Hunt said.

The overall total of 49.58 million boxes filled during the 2017-2018 season — as growers reported losses of up to 70 percent because of Irma flooding groves and uprooting trees — was the lowest crop output since the 1941-1942 season.

Based on field surveys, Florida is projected to fill 79 million boxes with oranges in the current season. That would be up from 44.95 million boxes filled with oranges last season and 68.85 million boxes during the 2016-2017 season.

Grapefruit production is projected to increase from 3.88 million boxes in 2017-2018 to 6.7 million boxes this season. The production of red and white grapefruit is still down from two seasons ago when 7.76 million boxes were filled.

Specialty fruit accounts for another 1.2 million boxes in the new forecast.

Jim Turner is a Capitol reporter for the News Service of Florida, providing coverage on issues ranging from transportation and the environment to Legislative and Cabinet politics, which are some of the areas he worked in 20 years with TCPalm in Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast. Jim grew up in Millburn, New Jersey, where he started his journalism career providing weekly reports on the high school soccer team --- of which he was a member--- to the local Millburn Item. Jim received degrees in journalism and history from High Point University in North Carolina.