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More good navels found in wake of January freeze

California citrus growers and packers are putting numbers on the latest January freeze post mortem, and the consensus: “Not as bad as we expected.”

The week of artic cold unquestionably took a heavy toll, but the final damage tally could be reduced by as much as 10-million fresh market Navel orange cartons.

It's still too early, though, for a firm loss figure on Valencia oranges and other California citrus products.

Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual (CCM) estimates 42 million cartons of Navels were on the trees when the hard freeze hit.

“We figure we'll pack about 13 million cartons of Navels in the wake of the freeze,” he says. This, plus the fruit picked or packed before the freeze, puts the total loss at roughly 30 million cartons, versus the early damage estimate of 40 million Navel cartons.

“Before the freeze, we were packing three million cartons per day,” Nelsen says. “After the freeze, it has been about 1 million cartons per day industry wide.”

It has been good fruit.

Veteran general managers Tom Wollenman, LoBue Bros., Lindsay, and Kevin Severns, Orange Cover-Sanger Citrus Association, Orange Cove, said at the 2007 Citrus Showcase at Visalia, Calif., fresh fruit utilization after the freeze was running 80 percentto 90 percent, a normal non-freeze range.

“It has been squeaky clean fruit,” said Wollenman. “Quality has been excellent.”

The two veteran packers, who've experienced freezes before, expected that there would be good fruit from orchards in the citrus “banana belt” along the east side of the San Joaquin Valley.

“The damage was much worse as you moved away from the older, traditional citrus growing areas,” said Nelsen. “This is the fruit that went for juice or was otherwise removed from the trees.”

“We have had very few complaints about the post-freeze quality. The industry has really come together to keep bad fruit off the market. Everyone should be proud of their efforts.”

After the 1998 freeze, a considerable amount of damaged fruit reached the market, undermining consumer confidence in California citrus. It took the industry two years to regain that trust.

This time the industry has stepped up efforts to keep damaged fruit out of supermarkets.

“When we've had complaints this year, we've worked quickly to resolve them,” said Severns.

CCM Board Chair Philip LoBue of Lindsay echoed Nelsen's praise for the industry consumer protection program.

The cold weather after the freeze helped preserve fruit quality. Because the '07 freeze came later than the last two freezes, the additional maturity translated into higher sugar content and thicker skin, both of which better protected the fruit.

“If the frost had occurred in November,” LoBue says, “there's no doubt we'd have had a major disaster.”

However, when the weather turned unseasonably warm in March, Wollenman says, the packinghouse culling process became more challenging.

“The nice fruit had already been packed, and as the weather warmed up, the fruit dries out, which means more mechanical separation in the packinghouse.”

Nevertheless, Severns expects the Navel packing to continue to perhaps mid-May. If it makes it that long, it will be a month shorter than a normal season.

When there is a major crop loss like that from this year's freeze, Wollenman says, buyers are eager to know not only how much longer California Navels will be available, but how much freeze damage there was to Valencias, the state's summer orange.

When the freeze settled in, Valencias were small and most processors and growers expected damage to be greater to the low-sugar fruit. After the 1998 freeze, however, some of the fruit healed after the frost, so everyone in the industry has been reluctant to give an estimate now for the Valencia fresh pack crop.

USDA-NASS has not, however, and offered up a crop production forecast in March — which miffed the industry because the estimate wasn't accompanied by a utilization estimate related to the freeze.

“The release of the crop estimate in March — a month earlier than normal — makes it seem like there was no freeze disaster in California,” says Bob Blakeley, CCM director of grower services. The crop size estimate disregards the issue of utilization.”

USDA-NASS' latest forecast for the 2006-07 Navel orange crop, released in early March, is for a crop of 54.0 million cartons, but industry estimates of utilization for the fresh market likely will be 10 million cartons below that.

Also, California Citrus Mutual (CCM) believes the USDA-NASS January Navel estimate of 64 million cartons was far too low.

Blakeley says the industry believes the number is closer to 75 million cartons. About 25 million to 30 million cartons of that industry-estimated Navel crop are being harvested for juice or dropped on orchard floors.

USDA-NASS gave no utilization estimate, only noting, “A larger-than-usual percentage of oranges will be harvested for juice this year.”

“The fresh market is California's market,” Blakeley says, “and USDA figures do not reflect an definitive, estimated loss there.”

Sending oranges to the juice plant is at best a break-even proposition for California producers and is considered little more than a salvage operation.

Roughly 33 million cartons of Navels were harvested before the freeze. After the freeze only about 13 million cartons escaped damage and were suitable for the fresh market, according to CCM. That leaves a fresh market utilization estimate of roughly 46 million cartons, 48 million less than utilized last season.

Although the USDA-NASS lowered the Valencia crop estimate by 23 percent from early forecasts, packers say the issue is not crop size — it's crop utilization.

The 2006-07 Valencia orange crop is forecast to be 20 million cartons, 23 percent below the previous 2006-07 forecast and 26 percent below last season's revised utilization of 27 million cartons.

Blakeley says the federal crop reporting service Valencia estimate is “premature — the crop report that came out in March this year normally comes out in April. We'll have a better handle on the total citrus crop by then than we did in early March.”

He says Citrus Mutual challenges all the March citrus variety estimates because they do not consider the utilization factor.

USDA-NAAS estimates the 2006-07 California grapefruit forecast is 9.60 million cartons, down 20 percent from both the January forecast and last season's final estimate.

According to NASS, damage to the grapefruit crop varied widely by variety and location. The Oro Blanco variety grapefruit harvest neared completion in the Central Valley by early March, with heavy culling due to ice marking from the freeze.

The Rio Red variety harvest was ongoing in the desert areas. The NASS report says Rio Reds seemed to escape damage from the freezing temperatures in most areas. Quality was generally good with downgrading due to wind scar and sheepnose.

The Pummelo harvest continued in the Central Valley. Pummelo fruit with ice marking was eliminated.

The NASS 2006-07 lemon forecast is 33 million cartons, 20 percent below the January forecast and 21 percent below last season. Lemons were hit hard by the January freeze; about 72 percent of the crop was on the trees at the time. Packinghouses moved all fruit picked before the freeze, and picking activities have slowly increased since then.

The NASS 2006-07 tangerine forecast was 5.20 million cartons, down 32 percent from the January 2007 forecast, and 28 percent below last season. Tangerines also suffered the effects of the January freeze. Clementines suffered less, since the bulk of the crop was picked before the cold spell.

The industry was perhaps better prepared before and after the '07 freeze than the last two freezes. For a week beforehand and during the freezing days, industry leaders had daily conference calls to assess the situation.

With two weeks' notice of the impending freeze, growers and packinghouses went all-out to pick and store as much fruit as possible.

Afterward, the industry imposed a five-day voluntary hold on all fruit picked during or after the freeze in order to keep bad fruit from reaching consumers.

County agricultural commissioners from Kern, Tulare, and Fresno counties, and Terry Orr, general manager of Exeter Ivanhoe Citrus, agree that the five-day holding period worked.

Orr says he would like to see the hold period become mandatory and expanded to seven days for the next freeze to insure that no damaged fruit reaches consumers.

However, none of the on the showcase panel participants supported a picking moratorium during a freeze. This could possibly preclude a grower from getting good fruit off the trees ahead of a severe frost night.

Kern County Ag Commissioner Dave Moore and his counterpart in Tulare County, Gary Kunkel, and Deputy Fresno County Ag Commissioner Dennis Plann, all said packinghouses and growers were cooperative in the weeks following the freeze.

“Communication was excellent between growers and regulators,” says Kunkel.

If a packinghouse wanted to ship before the five-day hold period expired, the ag commissioner's office would collect 100 samples for use in a possible damaged fruit claim. Several houses inquired about shipping before the hold period ended, but according to the ag commissioners, none followed through.

Most of the post-freeze fruit inspection has been at flea markets, farmer markets, and other outlets considered “gunny sack” marketing areas.

Moore says his office received a tip from a passerby who saw people loading citrus from a juice truck to a pickup truck on the side of a rural road. The license number of the pickup was turned into the sheriff's office.

California has 270,301 acres of citrus — 140,043 acres of navel oranges, 49,163 acres of Valencia oranges, 46,217 acres of lemons, 24,038 acres of mandarins, 8,403 acres of grapefruit, 2,042 acres of Pummelos and hybrids, and 395 acres of limes.

Gross dollar losses from the freeze were expected to exceed $800 million.

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