(Sept. 8) FOWLER, Calif. — California pomegranate shippers are expecting an average-sized crop this season, as they prepare to shift to the wonderful variety in late September, about two weeks earlier than normal.

Shipments of the early foothill variety began in mid-August, although it’s usually first harvested in late September, said David Simonian, co-owner of Simonian Fruit Co. Simonian Fruit started shipping the larger early wonderful variety the first week of September.

On Sept. 7, 28-pound cartons of early foothills were $32.85-33.85 for 24s and 26s, $28.85-31.85 for 32s, $24.85-27.85 for 36s, $19.85-21.85 for 42s and $11.85-14.85 for 48s. Early wonderfuls were $30.85-31.85 for 32s, $28.85-29.85 for 36s, $20.85-21.85 for 42s and $13.85-15.85 for 48s.

The first f.o.b. report for cartons of early foothill pomegranates issued by the USDA last year, on Sept. 16, were $29.85-32.85 for 30s and 32s, $25.85-28.85 for 34s and 36s, $15.85-17.85 for 40-42s and $12.85-14.85 for 48-50s.

Shippers expect to pack between 1.5 million and 2 million cartons this season, compared to 1.3 million cartons last year, the first time Cali-fornia shipments topped a million cartons.

Tom Tjerandsen, manager of the Pomegranate Council, San Francisco, said trees are producing a full range of sizes this season, and the fruit is turning a deep red sooner. That means three things, he said: the fruit is sweeter this season; growers will have a tougher time shipping into January because of higher demands brought by the earlier surge of color; and fruit that might be processed for juice because the rind doesn’t reach full color might be sold on the fresh market instead.

“The portion of the crop that isn’t shipped because it doesn’t achieve a high exterior color will be minimized,” Tjerandsen said. “But it’s not because the fruit isn’t spectacular on the inside.”

Bakersfield-based Slayman Marketing, a major shipper of early varieties, started shipping grenadas on Aug. 2, said sales manager Joe Pei-rone, and will continue to harvest foothills into late September, switching to wonderfuls around Oct. 10.