(Jan. 17) With the California citrus season having been literally frozen out, the midwinter produce landscape has suddenly changed for retailers.

“We’ve had to pull some ads,” Mike O’Brien, vice president of produce for St. Louis-based retail chain Schnuck Markets Inc., said Jan. 16. “It’s not real good.”

The market for whatever citrus was available, meanwhile, is zipping upward.

“Absolutely,” said Kathy Cathey, saleswoman for Pacific Trellis Fruit, a Nogales, Ariz.-based shipper of Mexican citrus. “The minute I came into work Monday morning, the phones were ringing off the hook with people wanting to know whether fruit was available.”

Calls were coming in even from California, Cathey said.

“Usually, California people take care of themselves, and I mostly take care of the Rocky Mountain states, but now we have more interest from California citrus people,” Cathey said.

As of Jan. 16, only a two- or three-week supply of California-grown citrus remained, she noted.

Prices have skyrocketed to nearly $30 a box, although no one said they were ready to predict where the markets might settle.

“The normal market is $7 to $8,” Cathey said.

Mexico appears destined to benefit from California’s woes, at least in the short term, said Sherrie Burkett, saleswoman for Rio Rico, Ariz.-based New Harvest Organics, which procures product from Arizona and Mexico.

“I think it possibly could be,” Burkett said. “We’ve had quite a few calls, and it has been interesting. Nobody is really asking about pricing because we’re not sure what we’re going to do yet. We’ve heard pricing anywhere from the 30s and the 50s for organic and conventional in 20s-mid-30s, so it’s a huge range.”

RETAILERS CONSIDER OPTIONS

With citrus supplies likely to dissipate rapidly, retailers likely will be looking to other items to promote, said Ed Odron, a Stockton, Calif.-based retail and produce marketing consultant.

It’s a sad situation, but we’ve been down this road before,” he said. “They’ll look at other seasonal fruit to fulfill their needs. You’ve got sales budgets to meet, so you have to continue to promote all the fruit you can. (Citrus) is a big part of their marketing plan this time of year. Now they’re going to have to look at other kinds of fruit.”

Alternatives may include apples, pears and, particularly, stone fruit and grapes from Chile, Odron said.

“Grapes are a strong item, and the quality is very, very nice,” Odron said. “I’m sure you’ll be seeing a lot of Chilean grape ads.”

Importers likely will be aggressively scouring the planet for citrus, said Bruce McEvoy, director of global affairs for Belgium's UniVeg Group, owner of Vero Beach, Fla.-based Seald Sweet LLC.

“I think companies like ours that have worked on global sourcing will work to fill that gap as much as you can from other sources,” McEvoy said. “When you have a freeze as devastating as what’s going on in California, you’re going to see dynamics globally. You’ll see fruit bound for the U.S. that wasn’t before. The supply chains and trade flows are in place.”