Tension are high among Florida grapefruit growers on the state's east coast as they watch the slowly moving Hurricane Dorian. If the storm were to hit Florida, grapefruit is most at risk of getting blown off the tree because of its size.

LAKELAND — If Hurricane Dorian doesn't take its projected northward turn from the Bahamas on Tuesday, a piece of Ruby Red grapefruit from Florida could become rarer than its gem namesake.

“If it doesn't make the turn, all bets are off,” said George Hamner Jr., president of Indian River Exchange Packers in Vero Beach, a fresh citrus packinghouse and a major grapefruit grower, on Monday. “We're all waiting for the hurricane to turn.”

If Dorian doesn't turn north, the storm would barrel toward Florida's east coast, making landfall at or close to the state's prime grapefruit growing region.

Because of its size, grapefruit is most at risk of being blown off the tree during a tropical storm or hurricane. Florida growers saw that during Hurricane Irma in 2017 and the three 2004 hurricanes, when at least half of each season's crop was blown off the tree.

All citrus crops are even more vulnerable now than 15 years ago because of the widespread presence of citrus greening, a fatal bacterial disease that arose in Florida in 2005 and has infected virtually all mature trees in the state. Among the consequences of greening infection are smaller fruit size and a weakening of the bond between the tree stem and the fruit, leading to higher levels of pre-harvest drop.

Until Dorian, grapefruit growers were expecting roughly the same crop, 4.5 million boxes, as the recently completed 2018-19 season. That crop included 3.74 million boxes of red grapefruit and 770,000 of white grapefruit.

Fruit size has looked better so far on the 2019-20 crop, said Hamner and Scott Lambeth, owner of Golden River Fruit Co., which has more than 2,000 acres of grapefruit in Indian River and St. Lucie counties. Unfortunately that progress against greening makes their grapefruit more vulnerable to tropical storms.

“We could get some loss just because this grapefruit crop has more size,” Lambeth said. “There's not a whole lot we can do in the grove (to prevent wind damage). We didn't need this.”

Hamner and Lambeth said they expected some fruit loss even if Dorian makes its much hoped for northward turn.

They compared the prospective loss to that from Hurricane Matthew, another Category 5 hurricane that followed a similar path grazing Florida's east coast on Oct. 6 and 7, 2016. Matthew had weakened to a Category 2 by the time it made its Florida pass, but the state's east coast got buffeted by winds of up to 100 mph.

Matthew blew some fruit off the tree but crop losses weren't nearly as severe as 2004 and 2017, Hamner and Lambeth said.

Tom Mitchell, the president of Florida Citrus Mutual, the Bartow-based growers' trade group, agreed.

“We did experience fruit loss from Matthew, but not as much as Irma,” said Mitchell, vice president of Riverfront Packing Co. in Vero Beach, also a citrus packer and grapefruit grower.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture had predicted a 2016-17 Florida grapefruit crop of 9.6 million boxes in October before Matthew hit and dropped that estimate to 9 million boxes in January, a 6.6% decline. That season's crop finished in June at 7.76 million boxes, down 19% from the USDA's initial estimate.

The tension among grapefruit growers remained high on Monday because of the uncertainty in Dorian's path, the growers said. Dorian's leisurely pace since hitting the Bahamas only increases the tension.

“It's like watching a turtle race,” Hamner said.

“There's so much uncertainty with this storm — just with the uncertainty we're concerned,” Mitchell said. “One slight wobble can affect us.”

And if that wobble pushed Dorian westward into Florida, grapefruit growers could be reliving the 2004-05 and 2017-18 seasons all over again.

“With the wind the way it is now, it's scary,” Mitchell said.

A direct hit would affect not just the current season but subsequent ones as well, Hamner and Mitchell noted.

A Florida landfall would carry large amounts of saltwater to the grapefruit groves, which could damage the trees, Hamner said.

High winds also could knock over young trees on which growers are pinning their futures, Mitchell added. The young trees are particularly vulnerable because they haven't established strong roots.

Blown over trees can be reset after the storm, but it will affect growth. And some trees cannot be replanted.

One reason for optimism, however, is that grapefruit groves are some distance from the coast in the prime grapefruit-growing counties, St. Lucie and Indian River, because of urban development, the growers noted. Both counties accounted for 79% of last season's grapefruit crop.

Just that short distance could make a significant difference in wind impact if Dorian doesn't make landfall in Florida, the growers said.

“We're still very hopeful this storm is going somewhere else,” said Pat Schirard, president of Indian River Select LLC, a Stuart grapefruit grower, and of the Indian River Citrus League, the regional growers' group. “Most of the grapefruit groves are 15 to 20 miles from the coast. That distance could be the difference in its effect on the grapefruit crop.”

Kevin Bouffard can be reached at kevin.bouffard@theledger.com or at 863-802-7591.