(Nov. 5) Buyers can expect larger quantities of smaller sizes of California navel oranges this year.

The navel crop, which was getting started the first week of November, promised near-midseason quality from the get-go, growers said. But whereas last year’s crop, which had the biggest size structure ever, peaked at 56s, this year’s crop will center on 88s into mid- to late December.

The biggest concern for grower-shippers and exporters remains the possibility of a West Coast port slowdown, which, if negotiations fail, could happen at midnight Dec. 28. That falls right in the middle of domestic holidays and a buying week for the Chinese New Year season. Chinese New Year is Feb. 1.

But growers and shippers were delighted with taste and color and said the taste of the early navels is some of the best they’d seen from early fruit. Buyers can expect to see moderate volumes by mid-November and promotable volumes by the first of December, growers said.

“We’re heavy to 88s with a lot of 113s,” said Neil Bourjaily, vice president of marketing for Sun Pacific Shippers, Los Angeles. “We’ll have a fair supply of 72s. The good thing this year, as much smaller as it is in size profile, the eating quality is outstanding. We’re not at midseason quality yet, but some of the product is nearly there.”

This year should see California’s Central Valley produce about 78 million cartons of navels with an additional couple of million cartons from Southern California, said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, Exeter. That compares to about 60 million cartons last year and 67 million the year before.

The increase mainly comes from the plentiful blossoms on the trees this year, Nelsen said.
Bourjaily said last year’s larger sizing and smaller volume may have been caused by a heat wave during blooming that knocked many of the blossoms off the trees. But a milder bloom season allowed the trees to set better this year.

Nelsen said a lack of rain, however, probably helped account for the smaller sizes this year.

“This year is more normal,” Nelsen said Nov. 5. “We’re picking now in Kern County. You’ll see more size as we move north. We’ll be into the market next week with volume.”

Nelsen said California shippers usually get some early navels into stores in time for Halloween, but that this year it will have volume before Thanksgiving, which is important and not that much later than normal.

“We’ll have a good crop we should be able to manage well,” Nelsen said. “The color is looking good. The tests for taste are really good. The only problem is that there is a lot of small fruit, so they’ll have to do more merchandising in bags.”

In fact, Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based Sunkist Growers Inc., even has promotions planned that focus on bags of oranges, said Russ Hanlin, vice president of international sales and sales operations.

“With the smaller size profile, we’d expect to see more bagging activity,” Hanlin said. “It’s a good way to move smaller sizes.”

Hanlin said good taste would help sales this year.

“This fruit is shaping up to be a great eating fruit,” Hanlin said. “It’s sweetening up like last year and the year before, which were very good eating crops.”

Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture didn’t report measurable volume on California navels until the end of November, when first-grade cartons of 48s sold for $15-16; 56s for $16-17; 88s for $15-17; and 113s for $13-15. The USDA had not reported prices for this year by Nov. 5.

This season could see more shipments in Euroboxes, Nelsen added.