(Nov. 3) Larger California navels, and plenty of them, are on their way to grocery stores as cooler nights dispel fears that the crop wouldn’t reach color levels in early November.

Full harvest should kick in the week of Nov. 7 as growers rush to remove the larger sizes early in the season, before they grow bigger, said Terry Stark, president of the California Citrus Growers Association, the Visalia-based cooperative whose membership controls about 80% of the state’s citrus crop.

“We’ll see 20-25% of the crop at size 56 or larger, and they usually pick them earlier so they don’t get larger,” Stark said. “The crop will still peak on 72s, with 25-30% of the crop, and that’s the normal size.”

On Nov. 1, 7/10-bushel cartons of shippers first grade navels from California’s central and southern districts were $15-17 for 48-72s, and $14-15 for 88s and 113s.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture in September estimated a record California navel crop of 46 million 75-pound cartons, a 21% increase from last season. At the time, industry members said the number of fresh cartons packed wouldn’t be much higher than last year, however, because of quality concerns.

That seems to still be the case, shippers said.

“It’s a larger crop volume-wise and a larger crop size-wise, but the exterior quality isn’t as good,” said Claire Smith, director of corporate communications for Sunkist Growers Inc., Sherman Oaks, Calif. “We’re starting to see protruding-end navels, and they’re growing so fast, some of it’s starting to split and it will divert some to (processing).”

Stark, however, said the start of the season has brought an average fresh-to-processed ratio.

“In the central part of the valley, there’s been some drop off the tree due to some splits and fruit being stressed from just coming into the season, but actually the packouts are running very well,” he said. “About 80% is being packed, either fancy or choice.”

Mid- and late October rains slowed the harvest by two days, but Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, Exeter, said the moisture was needed.

The rain soaked into the ground and will help keep the ground warm, he said. With temperatures at night dipping into the 40s and 30s, the fruit is reaching acceptable color levels, Nelsen said.

Demand is strong in the early season, and consumers prefer the larger fruit.

“There’s no such thing as a short crop before Christmas in this industry. You get out and pick as much as you logistically can,” Nelsen said.

Fred VanZandt, sales manager at Cal-Citrus Packing Co., Lindsay, said rain didn’t put a damper on the start of the season, and the cold nights and warm days are increasing the level of mature fruit.

“I’m starting to get pre-bookings for the (Thanksgiving) holiday, so we’re starting to find the right price,” VanZandt said.

Maturity levels are excellent so far, Stark said.

“The fruit is testing with high sugar, so the sweet taste is there, and we’re getting more of these 38-40 degree nights, so the color is coming on strong,” he said.

The growers cooperative expects to ship 900,000 to 1 million 40-pound cartons by Thanksgiving, Stark said. Last season, its members shipped 63 million cartons.

Smith and Nelsen said the hurricane destruction of Florida’s orange crop, primarily grown for processing, won’t have a significant effect on the early season fresh navels from California.

VanZandt, however, said he encountered a lot of interest about the crop in mid-October at the Produce Marketing Association’s Fresh Summit 2004 in Anaheim.

“As far as I can tell, there is this mentality that there’s going to be a shortage of fruit, and that mentality for most of those people seems to be swinging in our favor,” VanZandt said.