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Cold snap to hit Florida citrus; freeze warning issued

MIAMI (Reuters) - U.S. government forecasters have issued a freeze warning for parts of Florida's key citrus-growing region as a cold front threatens to carry icy temperatures into the Sunshine State this weekend.

The National Weather Service office in Tampa Bay-Ruskin said in an advisory on Friday that the freeze warning for Levy, Citrus, Sumter, Hernando and Pasco counties was in effect from 2 a.m. to 9 a.m. EST (0700-1400 GMT).

Tyler Fleming, a senior forecaster in the Tampa Bay office, said it was the first freeze warning of the year for the area and that temperatures could dip below freezing for at least two hours.

A freeze watch was also in effect for the same five-county area for late Saturday night through early Sunday morning, Fleming said.

Typically, citrus can be damaged by four hours or more of temperatures below 28 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 2 Celsius).

Andrew Meadows, spokesman for the state's leading growers association, Florida Citrus Mutual, said the weekend chill was unlikely to be long-lasting or extreme enough to cause any damage to the state's $9 billion citrus industry.

"Actually, this kind of cold event is a good thing because it brings the brix content up in the fruit and helps prepare the tree for any cold weather ahead," Meadows said in an email.

Ray Royce, executive director of the Highlands County Citrus Growers Association in central Florida, agreed that there was no cause for alarm.

"The next two nights will be the coldest nights of the season so far," Royce told Reuters in a phone interview.

"There may be a chance for frost," he said, "but it doesn't appear that there's going to be enough cold to damage wood or to damage fruit."

Royce added a note of caution, however.

"You never know what could happen. You just don't want to get flat-footed and have it all of a sudden be 5 or 6 degrees colder than you're expecting."

Florida's groves yield more than 75 percent of the U.S. orange crop and account for about 40 percent of the world's orange juice supply.

(Reporting by Tom Brown; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)

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