Freeze damage to California citrus is worse than expected, but lower volumes are strengthening markets.

California navel volumes could total about 75 million boxes by season’s end, down from pre-season projections of 85 million boxes, said Bob Blakely, director of industry relations for Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual.

Cold winter temperatures could take an even greater toll on the state’s mandarin crop, Blakely said. About 35% of fruit still on trees when severe freezes hit in January could be lost. About half of the mandarin crop had been harvested at the time of the freezes.

“As we’re getting into warmer days, damage is showing up more,” Blakely said Feb. 22.

Shippers also were reporting smaller size profiles on navels and mandarins shipping in the second half of February, Blakely said. Consumers shouldn’t, however, notice any effects on quality from the freezes.

“Packinghouses are doing a good job,” he said. “The fruit in the marketplace is good.”

Navel quality was slow to come on this season, Blakely said, but by January and February, it was improving quickly.

“The flavor of the navels has really improved in the last few weeks,” he said.

Growers also were reporting very little rind breakdown, Blakely said.

California navel shippers will try to stretch the season into June and, in some cases, July, a typical end to the deal, Blakely said.

The mandarin deal, however, could wind down in April, up to a month earlier than usual.

The lower navel and mandarin volumes in the second half of the California deal could provide a welcome boost to demand, Blakely said.

“It’s been slow, but we’re seeing some upward movement on domestic demand,” he said.

Export demand has been strong for some time, particularly on larger navels, Blakely said. And in a season where large fruit is at a premium, the differences in price have been significant.

“There’s almost a $3 spread between what growers are receiving for 72s and 88s,” he said.

On Feb. 21, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported prices of $8.73-9.75 for 7/10 bushel cartons of navels 88s from California, down from $9.63-10.65 last year at the same time.

Cartons of 72s were $11.73-13.75, up from $9.63-11.65 last year at the same time.

Having big fruit and export-quality fruit could be the difference between a good year and a not-so-good year for growers, Blakely said.

“Growers with smaller, mediocre-quality fruit won’t fare as well this season,” he said. “There’s a pretty wide variance on grower returns based on size and export quality.”