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Large California Navel crop holds potential for record, but size structure is on small side

by Rand Green | October 26, 2010
The California Navel industry, coming off "probably one of the best crops in history from a quality perspective and a revenue perspective" for the 2009-10 season, is looking at a larger on-tree crop for 2010-11.

In fact, “what we've got is one of the largest crops in history hanging on the tree,” said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual in Exeter, CA.

The forecast, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service 2010-11 California Navel Orange Objective Measurement Report released Sept. 10, is for a crop of 93 million cartons (40-pound equivalent).

Asked how far off a record that might be, Mr. Nelsen said, “It could be right at it. We’ll see how things pick out.” Even though the potential for a record is on the trees, “there is a good chance that we won’t market all of that, just because of the size structure,” he said. “It looks like we are going to have an abundance of small sizes.”

Additionally, the start of the harvest, as with most other crops in California this year, is later than normal, leaving less time, at least on the front end of the season, to move the large crop.

“We definitely are going to start harvesting later than we have in the last few years,” Mr. Nelsen said. “I anticipate we will have a little bit of volume in time for Thanksgiving, but not as much as we have had in the past.”

But there will be “a lot of fruit available this season,” and it is showing good exterior quality, he continued. “Pest thresholds were very low. Impacts were limited. So I don’t see any serious cosmetic damage of any way, shape or form.” The fruit has a nice round shape and it is without splits or sunburn, “so I think it will be an attractive piece of fruit to move into the marketplace.”

The 2002-03 on-tree crop was also very large. “Coming off a freeze year, the trees produced an abundant amount of fruit. It was just an adrenalin rush,” Mr. Nelsen said. “But the quality was not good that year, and we only harvested about 82 million cartons.”

The record was in 2005-06, which, by contrast to the current year, was characterized by large fruit size. “Because the fruit was so large, we harvested 92 million cartons,” he said.

If this year “is not the largest, it is going to be close to the largest crop in history, but it will be a challenge to market,” he said.

Adding to that challenge is the fact that “we are going to be marketing [the Navels] in the face of a larger Mandarin crop. So I think our customer base is going to see a heck of a lot of fruit for Christmas.”

California lemons will also have a larger crop for 2010-11, Mr. Nelsen said. “We’re finishing up the crop … in Ventura [CA],” and there is “a larger crop” ahead in California’s San Joaquin Valley.

“I think all the way around, all of our production districts are going to have more fruit of all major varieties,” those being Navel oranges, lemons and the Mandarin varieties, he said.

“We pretty much agree with what we are seeing” with the official industry estimate of an over 90 million-carton tree crop, said Dave Smith, general manager of Booth Ranches LLC in Orange Cove, CA. “Some of it is smaller, especially in the north end of the producing areas,” although younger groves, of which Booth has a substantial amount, are showing better size structure.

“I think we will see a lot of aggressive promotional pricing” on sizes 113 and smaller, with 88s being “the primary size at retail,” and premium pricing for sizes 72 and larger, he said.

The late start “is going to be problematic with a large crop, because you are losing about two weeks worth of movement we normally would have before year end,” Mr. Smith said.

He expected the company’s Navel harvest to begin by the end of October, with significant supplies available by the third week in November.

Smaller sizes notwithstanding, “If the industry works like it did last year, I anticipate a fairly good year for the growers,” he said.

“The biggest issue is just looking at how this crop is going to size out,” said Scott Mabs, marketing director for Homegrown Organic Farms in Porterville, CA, which grows and markets organic citrus. “An oversupply of small fruit doesn’t help anyone, usually.”

What will help, Mr. Mabs said, is that the flavor is usually very good when there are heavy crops.

(For more on California Navels, see the Nov. 1, 2010, issue of The Produce News.)