(Feb. 13) Various challenges have confronted the Florida, California and Texas citrus crops in recent years, but a relatively calm 2007-08 has translated to an overall production spike, putting downward pressure on prices.

In fact, orange prices from California and Texas in mid-February are nearly $10 per carton lower than at the same time in 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“We remain optimistic that markets will strengthen and growers will have a profitable year,” said Bob Blakely, director of grower services for California Citrus Mutual, Exeter, in mid-February. “The next two to three weeks should tell a lot. There’s good prices at retail level that should encourage movement.”

California’s record-breaking bumper crop — totaling 96 million 40-pound cartons of oranges — has yielded great quality fruit, but demand has not been able to match the unprecedented supply, said Tom Valenzuela, director of sales and marketing Booth Ranches LLC, Orange Cove, Calif.

“For Booth, it’s the largest it has ever been,” Valenzuela said of the 3.5 million cartons of navels and nearly 2 million cartons of valencias the company expects to produce this season. “The crop seems to be very nice, and the eating quality is great. But we’re not moving enough.”

Valenzuela predicts movement for Booth Ranches — projected to continue through the first week of June — would improve this spring, as demand typically strengthens in February, March and April, when exports to Japan and South Korea increase.

One variable likely causing the downturn in consumer demand for oranges is consumers’ newfound interest in mandarins, likely taking a chunk out of orange sales, Blakely said.

“We’re beginning to see the popularity of mandarin varieties, and that’s impacting demand for navels,” Blakely said.

David Mixon, chief marketing officer for Vero Beach, Fla.-based Seald Sweet International, also cited high quality on its California navels, tangerines, minneolas and blood oranges, but agreed with Valenzuela that pricing is lower than normal.

“We’re trying to get retail promotional activity,” Mixon said of California citrus, which should be available through April for Seald Sweet.

On Feb. 12, the USDA reported oranges were $9.33-11.35 for 7/10-bushel cartons of size 72s from Southern and Central California, compared to $19 for 72s a year ago.

In addition to pricing, the recent warm California weather also was starting to raise eyebrows for grower-shippers, Valenzuela said.

“It’s been 68 degrees — it’s too warm,” Valenzuela said. “It’s not good for the longevity of the crop. It’s got us all worried.”

Blakely said rapidly rising temperatures, coupled with the extreme cold in December and January that inflicted some ice markings, could lead to puffing and a shorter shelf life, causing fruit to fall from the trees.

“We’re seeing some already,” Blakely said of citrus drop. “If there is significant amount of that happening, it could lessen volumes.”

FLORIDA

Seald Sweet also was experiencing a boost in Florida production for its oranges, grapefruits and tangerines this season, Mixon said.

“It’s been our best year in the past four years, absent hurricanes and other natural disasters,” Mixon said, noting that Florida production would never elevate to the status it was six years ago, as a result of weather, canker and urban sprawl. “It’s exceptional in quality and flavor.”

As of Feb. 12, all grapefruit varieties were available, and Seald Sweet was just getting into honey tangerines, with fruit projected to provide strong volumes through May, he said.

Temple oranges were expected to wrap up in about a week, and midseason oranges were expected to continue for another 30 days, before transitioning to the valencias that should continue through May, Mixon said.

“The temple oranges are producing excellent quality and great flavor and great volume that is promotable,” Mixon said.

Size has been a problem for Florida citrus because of minimal rain during the summer, he said.

“Size on all product is medium to small because of the drought we had in production months,” Mixon said. “The good rainfall in the fall didn’t make up for the lack of rain in June, July and August.”

TEXAS

Small sizes in Florida are translating to a boon for Texas shippers, said Trent Bishop, sales manager for Lone Star Citrus Growers LLC, Mission, Texas.

“Large fruit is in very good demand, and from what I understand Florida has a small crop,” Bishop said. “That’s been a bright spot for us. We should maintain good prices on large fruit throughout the rest of the season.”

On Feb. 12, orange prices were at $8.30 for 7/10-bushel cartons of sizes 64-72 from the Rio Grande Valley, versus $18.25 for 56-72s on Feb. 12, 2007, according to the USDA.

Grapefruit f.o.b.s, on the other hand, were up, averaging between $18.25-19.30 for 7/10-bushel cartons of size 27s Rio Star fancies coming out of Rio Grande Valley, compared to between $17.25-18.25 for 23-27s at the same time last year, the USDA reported.

Volumes for Texas oranges and grapefruits were up slightly this year at 6 million 40-pound cartons, versus 5.4 million at the same time in 2007, said John McClung, president of the Mission-based Texas Produce Association, citing numbers from Feb. 2.

Lone Star Citrus has delivered mainly fancy oranges and grapefruits so far, but for the last 60 days of the season — which is scheduled to wrap up May 1 — expect more choice fruit, Bishop said.

“Right now we’re starting to go through and clean the trees,” Bishop said. “We’ll have to grade a little harder than normal.”