(Sept. 21) Produce buyers can expect a California navel crop that is 2% smaller in volume than last year but above average in quality.

The Golden State is forecast to produce 82 million 37.5-pound boxes of navels during the 2005-06 season, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The season is expected to start about Nov. 1, which is seven to 10 days behind last year, said Doug Sankey, sales manager for SunWest Fruit Co. Inc., Parlier, Calif.

“The quality looks very good on the tree. It is a little on the small size because of the hot weather,” said Nick Hill, citrus man-ager with Greenleaf Farms, Kingsburg, Calif., and California Citrus Mutual, Exeter, chairman.

Sankey said he thinks the fruit will run a size smaller than last year — which could be good.

He explained SunWest’s customer base tends to favor larger sizes. But last season the fruit was almost too large and a high percentage had to be graded out because of cosmetic problems, shippers said.

Hill said last year grower-shippers had difficulty exporting fruit because of quality issues. So, much of the crop that would have gone to export was shoved into the domestic market and created kind of a glut during high periods of production, Hill said.

He is optimistic for this season.

“Anytime you have high quality fruit it will find its way into the market,” Hill said. “There are more choices and opportuni-ties with high quality.”

Todd Steele, co-owner of Royal Vista Marketing LLC, Visalia, Calif., said that although the crop is estimated to be lighter in volume, the fruit could catch up in size if fruit continues to grow.

“The navel set is good and isn’t all in bunches,” Steele said.

He explained that single sets lead to more growth as the fruit matures.

On Sept. 20, 7/10-bushel cartons of First Grade valencias from California were priced at $9-10 for 48-72s and $9.50-$10.50 for 88-113s, the USDA reported.