Importers of Southern Hemisphere citrus are reporting strong demand this summer — a big change from Summer 2012.

Peak South African citrus volumes were beginning to arrive in the U.S. in the second half of July for Vero Beach, Fla.-based Seald Sweet International, said Mayda Sotomayor-Kirk, chief executive officer.

Industry-wide, navel volumes are expected to be about 10-15% lower than last season, but sizing is expected to be up, with fruit peaking on 56s, 64s and 72s, Sotomayor-Kirk said.

Tight navel markets will finally start to loosen up, likely the week of July 29, as South African supplies ramp up, said Tom Cowan, South African citrus manager for DNE World Fruit Sales, Fort Pierce, Fla.

Up until late July, the season has been a challenging one for retailers, Cowan said.

“I don’t think anyone anticipated California finishing their navel deal as early as they did,” he said.

A slow start to the Chilean navel deal also strengthened demand for import navels, Cowan said.

Markets have been significantly stronger than they were last year, said James Milne, citrus category director for Vancouver, British Columbia-based The Oppenheimer Group.

“It’s been an interesting year,” he said. “It appears to be mostly different from last year. There seems to be some decent equilibrium in the markets.”

Milne said he was worried that high June prices for imported citrus could hurt demand later in the summer, but as of July 23 that didn’t seem to be a problem.

“We’re cautiously optimistic,” he said. “It’s an important year for citrus growers” following depressed markets last summer.

On July 23, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported prices of $30-32 for 15 2-pound mesh bags of clementines 24-28s from South Africa, up from $22-24 last year at the same time.

Seald Sweet reported steady demand for both South African navels and clementines this summer.

“There’s been a good flow. Last year there was a bit of an overlap,” Sotomayor-Kirk said.

Chilean navels, meanwhile, were delayed as growers waited for the right mix of brix and acids, Sotomayor-Kirk said. Cold July weather in Chile could further delay arrivals.

Demand should be strong for both Chilean and South African mandarins heading into fall, she said. Combined with the navel deal, 2013 was shaping up to be a big improvement over 2012.

“Last year was a very difficult season,” she said. “This season, if all the stars line up, we expect movement to be very solid.”

DNE’s South African clementine volumes could be 50% lower than last year, Cowan said. And industry-wide, Chilean mandarin volumes could be 35 to 40% lower.

“Clementines are really going to be down in August,” he said.