(April 1, 11:46 a.m.) Excellent late-season quality could give an unexpected boost to California navel markets in April and May.

Booth Ranches LLC, Orange Cove, Calif., expects to wrap up its California navel deal at the end of May, said Neil Galone, the company’s vice president of sales and marketing.

While consumer demand for strawberries, cantaloupe and other warm-weather fruit favorites is likely to increase as spring progresses, stealing some market share from navels, Galone said he expects the quality of the fruit Booth is shipping this spring to bolster markets.

“Demand has been really good, and the quality’s been good — it’s helped to pull it through,” he said March 30. “The flavor right now is at its peak.”

Atomic Torosian, managing partner in Crown Jewels Marketing & Distribution LLC, Fresno, Calif., agreed with Galone on quality, if not necessarily price.

“They’re eating outstanding — they’re as sweet as you’ll find them,” he said. “Movement’s been pretty good. Prices could be a little better. It’s not a banner year.”

The $9.50-12.50 range Torosian cited at the end of March could spike in mid-April, as supplies start to wind down, he said.

Nevertheless, he predicted there would be promotable volumes of California navels through late April or early May.

On March 31, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported prices of $10.48-12.50 for 7/10-bushel cartons of California navels size 48-72. Last year at the same time, prices were $9.33-14.35.

Because of the unexpected high quality, California navels could ship into June, a week or two later than expected, said Bob Blakely, director of grower services for Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual.

“We’ve been pleasantly surprised with how the quality is holding up,” he said.

While movement had picked up the last two weeks in March, it was still down from last year, and prices had not moved proportionately, Blakely said.

California is projected to ship about 67 million cartons of navels this season, down from about 98 million cartons in 2007-2008, Blakely said. In a typical year, California ships about 85 million to 90 million, he said.

Because it’s “been a long time” since orange markets were so robust, Galone said there’s a good chance Southern Hemisphere deals could kick off earlier than usual, with some product trickling in as soon as mid-April.

“Prices have been pretty good for California, and it could serve as a magnet for other areas to come in,” he said.

Torosian agreed that an earlier start to the Southern Hemisphere deals could be a possibility this season.

As it was earlier in the season, the California navel deal remains, in its final weeks, heavily tilted toward large sizes, with 48-72s the norm.

“For retailers who like to see a big piece of fruit, it’s been ideal,” Galone said. “There’s been plenty of promotable big fruit. But if you like small oranges, it’s been tough.”