Andy Nelson, Markets Editor
Andy Nelson, Markets Editor

An alien pop cultural force has invaded my home. A produce-related one, alas.

It’s a talking orange with an almost unbelievably annoying cackle and sense of humor.

This is not a subjective judgment. This thing’s name is actually Annoying Orange, and it’s laid eggs in the cerebral cortexes of every male second- through fifth-grader at my local elementary school, two of whose daytime residents happen to live under my roof on nights and weekends.

You’d think a guy like Bob Blakely, director of industry relations for Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual, would be up in arms about this.

Here the industry is facing something that’s actually real and happens to be about 1,000 times more annoying — the invasion of citrus psyllids — and they have this YouTube-based pest to deal with as well.

But Blakely was in a pretty good mood when I talked to him recently, psyllids notwithstanding.

It wasn’t even psyllids or Annoying Orange that I had on the brain when I called him for an update on the navel deal.

In this case, the potential threat I had in mind wasn’t something annoying or devastating, but something small, yummy and easy to peel.

If you’re a navel and valencia shipper, clementines aren’t just a foreign threat from countries like Spain and Morocco. Easy-peelers are enjoying a renaissance in the Golden State, and much of it seemed to be coming at the expense of the venerable orange.

So far in the 2012-13 season, however, it’s not shaping up that way.

Outstanding quality, high sugars, great color, a clean finish — it’s all led to great demand thus far, Blakely said.

Brisk business

Typically, there’s a lag in navel demand after Thanksgiving, but not this year, he said. Customers started reordering long before the last leftover turkey sandwich had been made.

The brisk movement can’t be attributed to lower volumes — this season’s crop is on schedule to meet the California Agricultural Statistics Service’s estimate of 93 million boxes, which would be 10 million boxes more than last season and close to industry records, Blakely said.

Nor can navel demand be chalked up to a shift in the clementine/orange balance. Demand for the smaller California fruit continues to soar, shippers told me.

Further, navels have performed this well despite being on the small side, with peaks in the 88 range for many shippers instead of the more desirable 72s and 56s.

It’s a textbook case of great quality raising all boats, with none of the dreaded intra-commodity cannibalization growers talk about.

A shipper I talked to recently, Neil Galone, vice president of sales and marketing for Orange Cove, Calif.-based Booth Ranches LLC, gives a lot of credit to the California Standard, a new maturity standard that required growers to wait to pick until navels reach optimum flavor.

Rather than relying on the simple sugar-acid ratio that has long been the industry benchmark, the California Standard uses a more complicated formula to come up with a new flavor rating. Anything under 90 on the new scale doesn’t make the grade.

“Some years when we’ve started, we’ve had some marginal fruit,” he said. “This year, the quality has been very good from the beginning.”

Based on the oranges I’ve had this season, I’m buying it. And I plan on telling my sons I’ll take a Delicious Orange over an Annoying Orange any day.

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