A series of hit-and-miss rainstorms that dumped near record amounts of rain in California’s citrus growing regions during December wreaked havoc on picking schedules, and more rain was on the horizon.

Rainstorms slowing California citrus harvests

In anticipation of the storms, most grower-shippers accelerated harvesting in early December.

“With the amount of rain we’re getting, even with the proper planning we just can’t get into some fields,” said Joe LoBue, co-owner of LoBue Bros. Inc., Lindsay, Calif.

As of Dec. 27, rain totals in the San Joaquin Valley exceeded 300% of normal season-to-date rainfall more than 400% of normal for the month, he said.

LoBue Bros. has been meeting orders in part by picking along the street side edges of groves.

Another Lindsay grower-packer, Suntreat Packing & Shipping Co., has been able to take care of all of its customers even with limited fruit availability, said Al Imbimbo, vice president of sales.

“We accelerated the harvest in early December, so our domestic customers are going to be OK,” he said. “The export market may be a little starved in January.”

It is a similar scenario at Cutler, Calif.-based Wileman Bros. & Elliott Inc., said Andrew Felts, sales manager.

“We’re down to limited supplies, but we’ve been able to meet our orders,” he said.

Weather permitting, the company plans to ramp up the navel harvest by putting additional picking crews in the field the week of Jan. 3, Felts said.

To some degree, the inclement weather has been something of a bonus, said Jeff Olsen, vice president of The Chuck Olsen Co., Visalia, Calif.

“The timing of the storms actually works in the favor of the grower-shippers because demand is not overwhelming during the last couple of weeks of the year,” he said.

The reason for the lower demand in late December, according to Bob Blakely, director of industry relations for California Citrus Mutual, Exeter, is that buyers place holiday season orders well in advance.

The downside, however, could come later in the season.

“Some growers are reporting a wide range of maturity on the same tree,” Olsen said. “That’s not a real good sign when the tree doesn’t have a good hold on the fruit.”

If the long range predictions of more rain are realized, the industry may not be able to meet demand later in the season, he said.

The rains also could affect prices.

“I think it (the weather) will certainly keep the fancy price pretty strong, and retailers may see more choice available than in recent years,” Olsen said.

That is a reversal of seasonal pricing levels.

“Prices traditionally tend to soften during the end of year holidays,” Blakely said.

“The storms could be something of a leveling effect and strengthen prices.”

Despite the holiday season, demand has remained strong, and prices have been holding steady at Sunwest Fruit Co. Inc., Parlier, said salesman Jesse Silva.

“We’ve been able to get into most of our groves,” he said. “The problem for us has been having wet fruit because when we haven’t had rain we’ve had fog.”

The high precipitation totals also will tend to grow the fruit, which Silva said is a positive in a season that was forecast to have good volume but slightly smaller fruit.

The mid-season rain also plays into the strategy at Sunwest Fruit because a big chunk of its navel deal is late-season varieties, Silva said.

“We could have navels into July,” he said.

Organic grower-shippers have not escaped the weather headaches.

“It’s been a struggle to pick,” said Scott Mab, director of marketing for Homegrown Organic Farms, Porterville, Calif. “We’re trying to locate the best fields to get into.”

Supplies will be adequate in early January, he said. Beyond that period is a bit murky.

“If the weather doesn’t settle a little bit, things are going to get difficult when looking three to six weeks down the line,” Mab said.

Navels are not the only California citrus commodity slogging through the storms.

The clemenule season is wrapping up at Sunwest Fruit, but the murcott and tango harvests are scheduled to begin in January, Silva said. The company also began picking cara caras the week of Dec. 27.

Wileman Bros. & Elliott’s cara caras should have full color and be ready to harvest the week of Jan. 3, Felts said.

What may be a problem, he said, is finding enough pickers to bump up the navel harvest and launch the cara cara picking simultaneously.

While the rain may cause problems for retailer and foodservice, it is a silver lining for California after four consecutive dry years.

“We’re still farmers, so rain’s a good thing,” Imbimbo said.