(Sept. 17) With Mother Nature’s blessing, California citrus growers forecast this season to produce a smaller crop yet more favorable sizing compared to last year.

California’s upcoming naval oranges may fit a profile that is “just right,” shippers say, yielding midrange volumes of medium to large fruit sizes. The state’s expected orange production for the 2003-04 season is 78 million 37.5-pound cartons, or 1.46 million tons.

This is down 5% from last season’s 82 million cartons, 1.54 million tons, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture crop production report released Sept. 11.

“This year looks to yield a larger and better-sized crop with less volume,” said Steve Nelsen, managing partner of Valhalla Sales & Marketing Co., Kingsburg, Calif. “It’s early, but the navel shape and texture looks good, I think it is going to be a good, clean crop.”

Citrus orchards aren’t laden with an excessive harvest, shippers say.

“It looks like a medium-range crop, not a short crop, but not as long as last year,” said Fred Van Zandt, sales manager, Cal-Citrus Packing Co., Lindsay, Calif.

“Compared to last year, it is not as heavy a set,” he said. “Last season was one of the largest crops.”

Predictions should be fulfilled when the harvest starts in early October.
Nelsen said he would like to see the initial pick held to the first of November for a better-eating-quality navel.

Navel prices won’t be set until the season starts in mid-October, said California Agriculture StatisticsService representative Jonathan Straight in Sacramento.
Last year USDA’s first report on California navels in early November had per cartons prices first grade 48-72s $20-22, 88s $16, 113s $11-12 and 138s $7-8.

In mid-September, California valencia prices per carton of first grade were 48-72s $9-11, 88s $7.50-8.50, 113s $6-7 and 138s $5.50-6.50.

A spike in the Golden State’s recent temperatures is boosting the fruit’s sugar content.

“California’s heat has been a plus for the citrus industry,” said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, Exeter, of the 100-degree late summer temperatures.

High temperatures are making up for the spring’s inconsistent weather pattern, and the young crop is playing catch up, Joel Nelsenadded.

Valhalla sales look to “start off hitting (the harvest) slow and in September we’ll better the stride, so by the first of December we’ll be in full stride,” Steve Nelsen said.

Maturing navels also hint that a good size range is in store for the domestic and international navel market.

“Hopefully we’ll have quite a few 72s,” Joel Nelsen said. “We’re hoping for a good year. It has been an economic bloodbath since 1998, and growers definitely lost money.

“The maturing fruit is bigger than last year’s crop at this time, but is anticipated to be smaller (overall),” he said. “In the previous season we experienced a heavy growth spurt when tremendous rains blanketed the Valley.”

Steve Nelsen foresees sizes falling into the 88 and 72 rangeand peaking with larger fruit later in the season. The domestic market wants larger fruit and that will fill that demand, he explained.