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Good year on tap for California citrus

Small fruit and the trade dispute with China combined to create a less than stellar 2018-19 season for the California citrus industry.

The industry is looking for a bounce back year and California Citrus Mutual President and Chief Executive Officer Casey Creamer is optimistic that will be the case. Speaking to The Produce News, he said about 20 percent of the California navel crop had been picked, packed and sold by Jan. 7, and the industry was gearing up for the peak of the season, which will consume the first four months of the calendar year.414-ORANGES-LANE-LATE

Creamer said navel oranges are the engine that drives the California citrus season and the export market is one of the most important factors in making for a good season. The domestic market takes the majority of the crop but importers — mostly in Asia — pay a premium for the fruit, which stabilizes the domestic market. In 2019, the trade issues greatly reduced China’s participation. Creamer expressed hope that the phase one trade agreement with China, which was expected to be signed in mid-January, will open up the trading channels. However, he cautioned that eliminating China’s tariff on citrus was not part of that first agreement and so it remains to be seen if that will occur.

In any event, Creamer said the California navel crop has been estimated at 73 million cartons, which is about 7 percent smaller than the 2018/19 crop. He said the smaller crop has produced larger sizing, better demand and higher f.o.b. prices. In early January, he said the average price on a carton of conventional 88 size fruit was in the $12 range. He noted that growers will not be getting rich on that pricing “but they can pay the bills.”

He also noted that the weather has been perfect with the right amount of cold nights and rainy days to keep the crop healthy and happy, with no frost days as of early January.

Jeff Olsen, president of The Chuck Olsen Co., also mentioned the perfect growing conditions, and opined that the fruit is sizing very well on the trees and the expected decrease in volume might evaporate as the season wears on. He said that larger fruit creates more cartons, which is the metric by which crop size is measured. Large fruit is also the preference of the export market, so it creates a win-win as the sizing of the fruit can create a shortage on the small sizes, firming up the f.o.b. market on the smaller fruit as well.

Making a similar point was Craig Morris, grape and citrus category director for Homegrown Organic Farms, based in Porterville, CA. Speaking specifically of organic citrus, he said the rain and extra sizing could increase the volume by as much as 5 percent.

All three citrus industry representatives used almost the same glowing phrases to describe the quality of this year’s citrus crop. Each said the fruit looked great with excellent interior quality.

Christina Ward, director of global brand marketing for Sunkist Growers, echoed the sentiment of others in stating that this is the best time of year for Sunkist citrus because it is the time of the year when volume is at its peak and the longtime citrus industry icon is shipping the greatest variety of products. She noted that Sunkist offers a broad portfolio of citrus, grown both organically and conventionally, including navel oranges, lemons, California mandarins, grapefruit, and specialties like Cara Cara oranges, blood oranges and Minneola tangelos.

Though California navel orange acreage has dropped to its lowest point in the last two decades, with 2018 bearing acreage near 114,000, Creamer said total citrus bearing acreage in the state stood at about 250,000 acres. Navels, including Cara Cara and blood oranges, continue to dominate the state’s citrus production. Creamer called the citrus acreage situation “stable” and noted that specialty citrus production continues to increase. He added that there are close to 70,000 acres of mandarin varieties now being grown in the Golden State.