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California Navel oranges on a packingline. As with most crops in California this year, the harvest is starting late. (Photo by Rand Green)

During the 2010-11 Navel orange marketing season, the California citrus industry “moved a record-setting amount of fruit. I think that speaks well of the industry,” particularly considering that “we moved it in the face of more off-shore competition” and a historic volume of California-grown Mandarins, said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual in an interview with The Produce News Oct. 10.

Even more encouraging, the season “turned out pretty well” for the industry as a whole, although depressed prices at certain times during the marketing year and the “massive amount of rain” that caused severe harvest disruptions made it a “mixed bag,” with some growers not faring as well as others.

“Our industry continues to be stable if not increasing in terms of planted acreage, and I think that [bodes] well for the future,” Mr. Nelsen said.

The Navel estimate from the National Agricultural Statistics Service for the coming 2011-12 crop “came in at 85 million, down from 93 million, which was the estimate for the season we just finished,” said Niel Galone, vice president of marketing and sales for Booth Ranches LLC in Orange Cove, CA, Oct. 7. Although that is “quite a bit less than last year ... I have to admit that I was a little surprised. I thought that the crop was going to come in more like 78 or 80 million. I think the estimate could be perhaps a little high based on what we are seeing.”

Mr. Nelsen agreed that the estimate was “more than we thought. It will be interesting to see how it picks out,” he said. “You can argue both sides as to how accurate the estimate is. But these guys [who do the estimate for NASS] are more often accurate than they are in error, so we are going with it.”

Heavy rain in Central California a week earlier will give “a boost” to fruit growth, Mr. Nelsen noted. “And this higher crop is based on the size of the fruit when this estimate was released. It is not necessarily how many pieces of fruit are on the tree, because that is down, with the exception of Kern County.” What that means, he said, is “that we are going to have a better-size piece of fruit for the consumers and our retail customers.”

It appears to be “a good-looking crop,” he said. “The fruit is blemish free; the structure of it is positive; the size structure is good; all signs are positive.” But like most California commodities this year, it has been slow to mature.

As for the 2011-12 Mandarin crop, it will “most definitely” be up in volume because more acreage continues to come into production and young orchards continue to increase in production. However, “we don’t have a good handle on how large a crop actually is out there on Mandarins,” because the industry is “just too new” and concentrated among just a few shippers, so “sometimes it is difficult getting that proprietary information.”

Mr. Galone observed that although the Navel crop will be down by perhaps 10 percent for the industry, fruit size will be larger than last year. At Booth Ranches, “we think initially we will probably peek on 72 then 56s then 88s,” but by January that should change to a peak on “56s then 48s then 72s.” So “we think there is going to be plenty of fruit to promote, and the sizes will be the sizes that a lot of retailers prefer.”

“Overall, the crop ... is down by roughly 20 percent,” based on “what we are hearing throughout the industry,” said Scott Mabs, director of marketing for Homegrown Organic Farms in Porterville, CA, Oct. 11. “It is definitely lighter, no question.” But along with that, fruit sizing “is going to be better.” He expected sizing to peak “in the 72 to 56 range, which is right where we want to be.”

“Everything at this point looks good,” said Dennis Johnston, a partner in Johnston Farms in Edison, CA, Oct. 7. “Everybody was surprised that the official estimate was only about 8 percent lower than last year’s crop. Everyone was expecting it to be more like 20 percent lower.” But fruit sizes look like they are “coming along nicely,” so “we should have a good average-sized crop.”