A mild freeze late in 2009 failed to put much of a dent in the navel orange crop coming out of California, so all are optimistic for a strong citrus year for the state in 2010.

“We just dodged a freeze, so it’s looking better,” said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, Exeter. “The fruit has matured a few weeks late, but it’s flavorful, the shape is excellent, side structure good. All characteristics point toward it being a good crop.”

California is well into its navel season, which typically begins in November and runs through the spring.

Acreage for navels in the state is 136,000, an all-time high, Nelsen said, so all signs point toward a strong, if not bumper, crop.

“We’re about 20% into harvest,” Nelsen said in December. “Our crop estimate is about 80 million cartons, about 16% above last season. Packing might be reduced by the freeze. We’re packing on 88s, 72s. It’s a good retail structure. Prices are strong.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service, prices on Jan. 19 for California and Arizona oranges ranged from $12.53-13.55 for 7/10 bushel cartons of first-grade 72s navels. Prices were $11.53-12.55 for 88s, and $10.53-11.55 for 138s.

“It’s been going real well,” said Neil Galone, vice president of sales for Booth Ranches LLC, Orange Cove, Calif. “We ran into some cold weather, but we seem to have made it through. The first night (of the freeze), it had rained right before, and the ice insulated the fruit somewhat. We’re saying there’s about a 15% increase over last year, maybe slightly more. There’s a lot of season to go. The navel crop is big, and the valencia crop is big as well. But it’s not a bumper crop. Last year was quite light.”

Galone said Booth expects to pack between 2.1 and 2.2 million cartons of navels and 1 million cartons of valencias.

“And we have a lot of young trees in the ground,” he said. “By 2012-13, we could double that volume in navels and 50% more in valencias.”

Valencias, the late-season orange for California, typically is shipped from March to October.

Minneolas and tangelos are available from January to April.

The seedless, easy-peel varieties, clementines and mandarins, run from November to April.

California also grows and ships lemons and, combined with the deal in Mexico, can provide lemons year-round.

Sun World International in Bakersfield plans on shipping about 800,000 40-pound boxes of lemons and about 400,000 boxes of navels in 2010, said Gene Coughlin, category manager for oranges and lemons.

“We’re harvesting and packing lemons from the Coachella area before transitioning to the San Joaquin Valley,” Coughlin said. “It’s looking good. The quality looks good. Everything’s going steady. Our navels in Bakersfield, we’re finished with our early variety. We’ll have late varieties in March through late June.”

According to a Jan. 19 USDA report, first-grade 75s lemons from California and Arizona ranged from $24.53-28.55, and 95s were $26.53-30.55.

Navels are also the major winter crop for Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based Sunkist Growers Inc., and corporate communications director Claire Smith said that company also is seeing a strong crop and expecting a good season.

“We move navels from October to May, early June,” Smith said. “We have a good size crop, and quality is excellent. Brix levels are high. Sizes are peaking at large to medium — 56s, 72s and 88s.”

Steve Nelsen, managing partner at Valhalla Sales & Marketing Co., Kingsburg, Calif., said he also was seeing large to medium sizes with his company’s navel crop.

“Fruit quality seems to be very good,” he said. “We’re peaking on 72s on navels, and it looks clean. A major block of our citrus will be in the 72-88 size structure.”