It’s pomegranate time in Southern California, where grower-shippers anticipate a wonderful season.

After a spring freeze destroyed the early buds of some growers, summer was warm and dry, culminating in a heat wave in mid-August.

“The color looks good, sizing is much better than last year and the crop is very clean to this point,” said Atomic Torosian, partner in Fresno, Calif.-based Crown Jewels Produce Co.

“The big news is we’re starting earlier,” Torosian said. “Last year we didn’t start pomegranates until Sept. 5. This year we started in the last days of August. That makes a big difference.”

David White, president of Fresno-based Trinity Fruit Sales Co., said he’s also seeing slightly larger sizes and a cleaner crop than 2011.

He started picking proprietary varieties under the Sweetheart label in the third week of August, and predicted an earlier start for the wonderful variety.

“Last year we got rained out the last week of the season and couldn’t get all our pomegranates picked,” he said.

“That’s why it’s helpful when we can get off to an early start.”

White expects to pack close to 900,000 boxes, up from last year as new trees come into production.

Jeff Simonian, vice president of sales and marketing for Fowler, Calif.-based Simonian Fruit Co., predicts shipments may be as high as 4 million boxes industrywide, compared with 3.5 million last year.

Simonian expected to start harvesting the second week of September. That’s earlier than last season, he said, but closer to normal.

With so many new pomegranate trees coming into production, figuring out the size of the crop will be a challenge, said Bill Purewal, president of Selma, Calif.-based PureFresh Sales Inc.

“We think it’s lighter on the tree, but overall we don’t think it’s a light crop because of the production that’s coming on,” Purewal said.

Judging by preliminary meetings with retailers, grower-shippers predict good, steady movement for the fruit as demand increases.

“Early conversations with retailers and consumer feedback via our juice business show that the demand for pomegranates and all pomegranate products continues to be strong,” said Brad Paris, vice president and general manager of produce for Los Angeles-based Pom Wonderful.

Paris said the company expects “a nice big jump” in volumes this year.

“If the first big rainstorm holds off until mid- to late November and we get some cool nights to help the external color of the fruit, we’ll be in good shape,” he said.

Justin Bedwell, president of Madera, Calif.-based Bari Produce LLC, expects better quality fruit than last year.

“That means more export and retail sales and less to the processed juice utility market, but on the flip side there will probably be more fruit,” he said.

While most grower-shippers are keen to get in and out of their orchards as quickly as possible, Kurt Cappelluti, sales manager of Madera, Calif.-based Stellar Distributing, aims to be one of the last shippers out of the deal.

“I want to start as late as I possibly can,” said Cappelluti, who began picking around Oct. 15 in the past two years.

“The longer I can wait and not have to deal with the weather, the better the pomegranate I’m going to produce,” he said.

“Not just from the first day we pack, but it’s going to store better in the cooler two months later.”

With the enormous production coming on in the next few years, increasing demand and finding new markets is top of mind for everyone in the industry.

“We’re certainly trying to push the demand to the point where we can keep prices steady even as more and more supply comes online,” Paris said.

“We’re not projecting an increase, but we think we can keep the demand growing at the same rate as the supply.”

Labor is already an issue, Simonian said, as pomegranates compete with California grape and stone fruit for workers.

To be proactive, Sterling has increased wages to encourage the 500-600 workers who start picking the company’s figs in June to remain through November and possibly December.

“Overall, I think our future is pretty strong,” Cappelluti said, echoing the feeling of other grower-shippers.

“With the help of the gurus at Paramount and others who are doing a good job of marketing, I don’t think we’re going to have too much production.”