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USDA estimates lowest citrus crop in six years; CCM thinks it's even lower

California Navel Orange Objective Measurement Report, issued by the California Department of Agriculture in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service, is a usually reliable estimate of California's Navel crop.

The newest report, released Sept. 11, estimates the 2014-15 crop at 78 million 40-pound cartons, which would make it the smallest crop since the freeze year of 2008-09. But California Citrus Mutual thinks the crop is even smaller than the USDA's NASS estimate because it does not take into account losses due to the current drought conditions.

"After canvassing a significant number of producers and shippers, CCM believe the crop estimate is high," CCM President Joel Nelsen said in a statement issued Sept. 11. "We know acreage has been removed from production" due to the drought, "but getting figures for a range has been difficult. We know the lack of water has affected fruit size during the growths stages, but surveying 126,000 acres is almost impossible. We also agree there is more fruit on the tree as compared to last year" in terms of the number of pieces of fruit. "However fruit size is a concern. All of this affects the number of cartons ultimately packed."

However, CCM anticipates a normal production and excellent quality and flavor during the first four months of the harvest season, according to Nelsen.

Unlike Navels, Mandarins should be up in volume this year because of more acreage in production.

The NASS estimate for Navels is "based on their statistical model that they have to follow," said Bob Blakely, CCM director of industry relations. "We are just pointing out that this year there may be some deviation from that. It may not be as all-encompassing as it would be in a normal year, because of the effect of the drought and the lack of uniformity throughout the citrus belt, especially in some of those districts more affected by the drought."

There is a lot of acreage "that hasn't had the water it would normally get," and that is affecting fruit sizing, Blakely told The Produce News Sept. 12.

The NASS report does "make note of the fact that the fruit is smaller this year, even if there are more pieces," he added. But it assumes normal growth going forward, "and if we don't get additional rainfall and favorable weather going into the winter, that fruit is not going to grow very much. That is going to equate to fewer boxes, which would cause the total crop to be smaller even than what they projected."

In addition to the smaller fruit size, "we have seen an increase in the number of removals," Blakely said. "Growers who had marginal blocks that they thought they were going to farm for another three or four years, faced with the lack of water and more productive blocks that they were trying to protect, went ahead and cut the water off of those marginal blocks or pushed them out" to divert available water to the other groves.

That acreage that has been taken out of production due to decisions related to the drought was not taken into account in the NASS report, he said. In fact, "some of that was taken out after they completed their survey."

The release of the Navel orange crop estimate by USDA "is a necessary and mandated announcement that historically has provided an accurate assessment of California's Navel orange crop," Nelsen said in the statement. "Since California supplies 85 percent of the nation's fresh citrus, this release is usually received with anticipation and fanfare. Generally speaking, it sends signals to the consumer and to the markets around the country and world that California citrus growers are back."

The NASS number "is developed via a painstaking field assessment and formula that rely upon a bevy of statistics compiled over the years," he continued. However, "this year, that database is being disrupted because of the drought, and therefore the accuracy of the total number is suspect, in our view."

CCM believes that "a 'normal' crop will materialize in the first four months of the season," Nelsen said in the statement. "The season will start early if we begin to have cooler nights and the fruit breaks into a bright orange color. It also appears that the hot temperatures during the summer have created a highly flavorful crop. Size structure through February will be positive for the consumer. Exterior quality is also excellent."

Water costs "have been obscenely high," and that will be "reflected in sales prices in order for growers to offset the increased expense," Nelsen said. "The industry is mindful, however, of its obligation to move a quality product to the market at a reasonable price.

"CCM also believes that the amount of Mandarin varieties available to the consumer will be larger than the past seasons due to the increased number of trees now in production," he added. "Again, prices will reflect higher water costs."