(Feb. 8) California navel shippers are flummoxed about stagnant demand on what they see as excellent quality fruit, yet they fear quality could slip as warm temperatures hasten crop maturity.

At the same time, Florida citrus shippers are looking ahead to mid-March when valencias — primarily a processing crop — start harvest, signaling a possible jump in fresh-market f.o.b.s

In the middle, Texas shippers report good demand on both oranges and grapefruit, and said the market on larger grapefruit remains strong as supplies remain shorter.

PRICES

In California, the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Feb. 7 reported 7/10-bushel cartons of navels were $11-13 for 48-56s, $9-11 for 72s, $6-8 for 88s and $5-6 for 113s and 138s.

The USDA reported stable prices for 7/10-bushel cartons in the lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas, with 56s and 64s-138s at $8.25. Texas grapefruit was $22.25 for 23-27s, $16.25 for 32s, $14.25-16.25 for 36s, $11.25-12.25 for 40s, $11.25 for 48s and $10.25 for 56s.

In Florida, season-to-date average f.o.b.s for a 4/5-bushel carton of early and midseason oranges was $8.87 the week ending Feb. 5, compared to $7.80 at the same time in 2005, according to the Citrus Administrative Committee, Lakeland. During the same week, orange f.o.b.s were $7.53, an 80-cent increase from the previous season.

CALIFORNIA

Joel Nelsen, president of Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual, said the navels are peaking on 88s and 72s this season, when last year’s crop peaked on 56s and 72s. The smaller sizes haven’t been widely accepted at the retail level, he said, and it’s frustrating shippers who are trying to market a crop that has an excellent exterior quality and a good flavor.

Exports have been favorable, and shippers logged good volumes to Asian markets for the Chinese New Year, Nelsen said, but with the clock ticking as the season progresses, he’s worried about domestic shipments.

Continued warm weather has shippers worried, said David Roth, president of Cecelia Packing Corp., Orange Cove, Calif. For example, temperatures on Feb. 8 neared 70 degrees.

“We need to have the cold weather to slow the growth down, and they’re getting a little pliable,” Roth said. “It’s causing a little earlier maturity, and fruit that we’d normally pick in March is having to be picked almost a month early, because of rind issues.”

FLORIDA

With an overall orange forecast of 162 million boxes this season, Florida is expected to produce more than last season’s 150 million boxes, according to the Orlando Field Office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service. But that is much lower than the 242 million boxes produced during the 2003-04 season.

Kevin Swords, Florida citrus sales manager for Fort Pierce, Fla.-based DNE World Fruit Sales Inc., said midseason oranges are peaking on size 100s, which is typical for this time in the season.

In mid-March, shippers will start packing the valencia crop, most of which goes to the juice market. Fresh shipments, however, will continue into June, Swords said.

Even with the shortage of Florida oranges, there’s no reason the valencias will switch to the fresh market, because of the demand from processors, he said. The processors, however, tend to set the f.o.b.s. on the fresh market through their pricing structure, he said.

TEXAS

Texas grapefruit prices remained stable in early February, said Trent Bishop, sales manager at Healds Valley Farms Inc., Edinburg, Texas.

“The price shows you there’s not as much big fruit around as there was four or six weeks ago, hence the $22 market,” Bishop said on Feb. 8. “There is availability on just about all sizes, with the bigger stuff being a little snugger than the smaller stuff.”

February is national grapefruit month, according to TexaSweet Citrus Marketing Inc., Mission, Texas, and availability should continue into May.

Ruben Shives, salesman at Edinburg Citrus Association, Edinburg, Texas, said prices on larger oranges from Texas were firming up in early February.

“The demand for oranges is good,” Shives said on Feb. 8. “The demand for grapefruit the past week or so has been just moderate, but prices have been holding really well.”