(April 2, 11:23 a.m.) A record California navel crop is being met with so-so demand, creating weak markets that could last until the end of the season, grower-shippers said.

Earlier in the season, the California Agricultural Statistics Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, projected a record 93-million box crop for 2008. California navels began shipping in October.

Based on how the season has gone so far, grower-shippers and industry officials don’t doubt that mark will be reached.

And, they say, demand hasn’t been able to keep up. With the crop 65% harvested as of April 1, utilization was as low as 70%, said Tom Valenzuela, director of sales and marketing for Booth Ranches LLC, Orange Cove, Calif.

“It’s been a tough season for sure,” he said. “Demand has been a little bit sluggish. Historically, movement has been a little better than we’ve seen. We’re just not getting the pull at retail.”

While pricing on large first-grade fruit was starting to inch up, Valenzuela said April 1 that other sizes and grades probably would not.

“It’s going to be a struggle through to the end,” he said.

Booth expects to ship navels at least through June 1 this year, Valenzuela said.

Ross Bailey, partner in Bravante Produce Packing and Cold Storage, Reedley, and owner of Cal Sales Marketing, Visalia, agreed that demand is sluggish so far this season, and he didn’t know if that would change.

“Movement is slow,” he said. “In a normal year, it would pick up, so I’m hopeful, but it’s hard to tell.”

On April 1, the USDA reported prices of $12.33-14.35 for 7/10-bushel cartons of first-grade navels size 48-56 from California, down from $20-22 last year at the same time.

Prices for 72s were $9.33-11.35, down from $17-18 last year at the same time.

Taking some of the edge off weak domestic pricing was strong export demand from Korea, said Bob Blakely, director of grower relations for California Citrus Mutual, Exeter.

“We’re struggling to meet the protocol there, but given the volumes that have gone to Korea, I think the protocol’s working very well this season,” he said. “There have been a few detections there, but it’s a very small percentage.”

Under the phytosanitary protocol, oranges shipped to Korea from Fresno and Tulare counties are inspected for septoria citri, a fungus.

California growers also are enjoying strong export demand from Southeast Asia for valencias, Blakely said. Almost all valencias will be targeted for export until June, when the navel deal begins to wind down, he said.