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The official estimate from the California Agricultural Statistics Service for the 2009-10 California Navel crop is 80 million cartons (37.5 pound equivalent), up 16 percent from last year but well under the record 95 million-pound crop of 2007-08. In other words, California is looking at a moderate-sized Navel crop this year.

According to CASS, 78 million cartons of California's forecasted 80 million for the coming crop will come from District One, which is the San Joaquin Valley, with the remaining 2 million coming from elsewhere in the state.

However, Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual in Exeter, CA, feels that the CASS estimate of 78 million cartons for the valley is unrealistically high and believes that 74 million cartons would be a more accurate number.

While expectations vary from one producer to another, most of the shippers with whom The Produce News talked expect a favorable size structure, although they foresee somewhat smaller-sized fruit, on average, than last year, particularly for the early part of the season.

Quality appears to be generally excellent, with good sugars and good sugar- to-acid ratios developing, and the harvest start times are waiting not on flavor but on color.

Mr. Nelsen said that he believes the CASS estimate is accurate in most respects but asserted that it does not take into consideration "the acreage that has been pulled as growers transition into other varieties. For that reason, we think the acreage figure that they are using for production is somewhat high."

The timing, sizing and quality of the fruit is all "positive," Mr. Nelsen said. "We've got good exterior quality. All of that rain we had is going to create some good sizing," he said Oct. 19. Fresno, CA, received over an inch of rain on Oct. 13, the first significant rainfall of the season and a record for the date. "We had excellent heat levels during the summer that should create very good sugar-to-acid ratios, so flavor should be optimum. I think the issue right now is getting some cool nights back on the agenda so we can get some color on the fruit."

As of Oct. 26, the AccuWeather forecast called for lows in the 40s and low 50s over the following two weeks, a desirable range for bringing on the desired color.

The harvest had already begun on some early Navels by late October, and Mr. Nelsen expected most growers to be harvesting by around Halloween. "I think we are going to make it with volume in the stores for Thanksgiving," he said.

Opening prices will probably be "a little bit less than historical averages because the Navels have got to create some shelf space for themselves," Mr. Nelsen said. "They've got to move some of this offshore product out of the stores. The offshore product was inconsistent in terms of flavor this past year, and that doesn't set a good tone for us. So we've got to get the consumer to understand that California fruit is back and it's good. Pricing will be one of the major tools we use to achieve that."

"I think we have a lot of good things going for us this season," Kevin Fiori, vice president of sales and marketing for Sunkist Growers Inc. in Sherman Oaks, CA, said Oct. 21. "We have, on Navels, a good size structure and a high sugar content this early in the season. It should be a good-tasting piece of fruit. When you are dealing with a great-tasting piece of fruit, that solves a lot of issues and helps build demand from the very beginning of the season."

The crop is "larger than last year, but last year was a very light crop," Mr. Fiori continued. "The volume is consistent with a normal year, and the size structure is really perfect, we believe -- a 72 followed by a 56 followed by an 88 -- so we should have a pretty good run of sizes, peaking at the middle of the manifest, or the most desired sizes."

"The crop looks very good," said Paul Huckabay, sales manager for Duda Farms Fresh Foods in Visalia, CA. "We have a nice fruit set on the Navel oranges as well as the clementines and the Meyer lemons. It is setting up to be a real nice season in terms of volume and quality."

"The crop is fairly good & about normal or slightly above normal," said Gene Coughlin, category director for Sun World International LLC in Bakersfield, CA. "Sizing seems to be a little bit smaller right at this point in time, going into the first part of the deal, but hopefully it will correct itself as we get into the middle & varieties."

"Each year, as you wait on fruit maturity," either the color develops first and "you are waiting on flavor" or the flavor develops first and "you are waiting on color," said Neil Galone, vice president of sales for Booth Ranches LLC in Orange Cove, CA. This year, "the internal maturity has been continuing to improve, and we have been waiting on color." That will mean that by the time the fruit achieves the desired color, "it has already exceeded minimum flavor standards."

Fruit sizing is "a little smaller this year," Mr. Galone said. It looks like it will "start out peaking on 72s and 88s," followed by 56s, "which is right in the middle, where it needs to be." Quality "looks good," and the early fruit "has been really clean, so we are optimistic here."

(For more on the California Navel deal, see the Nov. 2, 2009, issue of The Produce News.)