(Sept. 19) Weather problems in Chile and South Africa and high post-freeze consumer interest should mean strong demand for California navels, grower-shippers and industry officials predict.

Shipments should begin in late October or early November, a typical start to the deal, according to grower-shippers and Bob Blakely, director of grower services for California Citrus Mutual, Exeter. The deal should run through May or June, grower-shippers said.

About 86 million cartons of California navels are expected to ship in the 2007-2008 season, according to the California Agricultural Statistics Service. That’s up from 68 million in the freeze-affected 2006-2007 season, but below the 91 million shipped in 2005-2006.

Blakely, who called 86 million boxes a normal-sized navel crop, the said the California valencia and Southern Hemisphere navel pipelines should be fairly clean by the time Golden State navels begin shipping, opening the door to strong demand.

Claire Smith, director of corporate communications for Sunkist Growers Inc., Sherman Oaks, Calif., also characterized the 2007-2008 crop as normal-sized. She also expected strong demand this season.

“We’re already getting calls,” she said. “There was less fruit last year, so everyone’s very anxious for this year.”

Weather-related problems in South Africa and Chile should pave the way for brisk movement once the California deal gets under way, said Roy Bell, general manager of Cal-Citrus Packing Co., Lindsay, Calif.

Valencia markets were, however, somewhat sluggish in mid-September, said Shan Blue, field operations manager and grower consultant for Sunny Cove Citrus LLC, Orange Cove, Calif. He said there should be valencias on the market right up until navel season.

Bell said there should be plenty of retail-friendly big sizes in the 72-88 range. The 2007-2008 crop also should have a wide variety of sizes to meet different market demands, he said.

Blakely said there should be a good size profile and overall excellent quality, thanks to the weather this spring and summer. Both he and Smith said trees exhibited no lingering effects from the January freeze.