How sweet it was.
That’s what many in the navel orange industry are saying in California’s central San Joaquin Valley this year, thanks to fruit that was deemed good-tasting virtually from start to finish of a season that helped make up for some recent lean years.
“This was one of those years that don’t come together very often — one of the best years in a generation,” said Bob Blakely, director of industry relations for Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual.
That exuberance, often rare, came because, “By November, consumers were recognizing they were eating an excellent piece of fruit,” Blakely said. “They saw that from the beginning and there was better repeat business and higher weekly movement.”
It was contrary to some past experiences when shoppers were soured on fruit not yet at premium quality. And the even better news was that the fruit held well on the tree for a season that lasted well into July.
“All around, the crop sized up nicely through the season and hung on the tree,” said Nick Hill, a Dinuba grower who manages citrus and other crops for Greenleaf Farms Inc. “We were picking high quality fruit into July.”
Hill said foreign sales were also good, “They were maybe the best in history; last year we couldn’t buy an export order. The world economy was bad. Korea was in a world of hurt. But the attitude changed this year and to meet quality expectations was nice.”
Moreover, the industry dodged any serious freeze.
“We had one substantially cold night,” Hill said, “but we didn’t have repetitive nights.”
Blakely explained that the California Citrus Advisory Committee has a navel maturity program under which inspectors go out and verify maturity standards to avoid putting fruit on shelves that is not ripe enough. Those inspectors finished their work by late November, deciding to cease mandatory testing early because the fruit was already ripe.
“Some years, ripening is variable and testing may run into January or February,” Blakely said, adding that a cool spring helped navels stay on the tree a little longer.
He said this year’s navel crop appears to match estimates of 80 million 37.5-pound cartons. That’s well above last season’s 64 million cartons. Pricing was consistent, with an average between $10.75 and $11 per carton.
Because of consistent quality, the percentage of fruit that actually made it into a carton – 85 percent – was remarkably high, Blakely said.
As good as the picture was for navels, it was a bit blurred for Valencias.
“The external quality of the Valencias was not as good,” Blakely said. “It was not as pretty a piece of fruit.”
He said only about 70 percent of Valencias were making it into the box.
Valencia news not all grim
But the picture for Valencias was not altogether grim, said Kevin Severns, general manager of the Orange Cove-Sanger Citrus Association based in Orange Cove.
Severns said growers of Valencias who can’t command a $9.50 to $10 per carton price may be better selling to the not-from-concentrate juice market in a $120 to $150 per ton range. “That helps to put a floor under the price.”
The fact that the navel harvest lasted so long cut into market space for Valencias, Severns said. “Offshore navels from South Africa and Australia are also taking up space,” he added, along with some tree fruit.
He was quick to point out that despite citrus greening setbacks to Florida and several foreign countries, California remains a small player on the juice market.
By late August, the Valencia harvest was between 60 percent and 70 percent finished. Harvesting of Valencias this year could go into October. In many years it’s done by early September.
The production of Valencias has declined in recent years, but could be stabilizing.
“Some people may be standing back and saying it has reached a point of equilibrium,” Severns said. “It is an alternate bearing fruit, and in down years, tends to do well. In heavy years, that’s not so.”
Last year, the crop was lighter.
Valencias lost some of their appeal in part because they’re seeded. But Severns said the Asian markets like them.
Acreage for mandarin oranges has nearly overtaken Valencia oranges. Overall citrus acreage remains constant. The top three commodities are navels, mandarins and lemons. That’s followed by Valencias, grapefruit, blood oranges and other specialties.
The industry continues to keep its guard up against Huanglongbing, the disease that causes citrus greening. It’s carried by a small winged insect called the citrus psyllid that is no bigger than an aphid.
Hill, who chairs California Citrus Pest and Disease Prevention Committee, said pesticide treatments against the psyllid appear to be working well “at knocking populations back” in Southern California.
He spoke in Exeter at a meeting on citrus in late August. “We’re not ready for a sigh [of relief]. But it appears that if we get out there and are diligent we can suppress populations of the [Asian citrus psyllid].”