ORANGE COVE, Calif. — Last season was far from a banner year for citrus exports, but California’s grower-shippers are optimistic that the world economy has stabilized enough to make selling their product abroad pay off once again.


On the whole, foreign currencies have settled down, said Randy Jacobsen, sales manager for Cecelia Packing Corp.


That should provide some impetus for this season’s export deal, but local production also will play a role in determining how much California citrus foreign buyers order.


“The underlying demand is there” for U.S.-grown citrus, said Fred Berry, director of marketing for Mulholland Citrus.
The question is whether foreign buyers can afford it and how much can they afford.


Mulholland ships mostly w. murcotts to Australia, New Zealand and Japan.


Korea, Japan, Southeast Asia, China and Australia are the industry’s major export destinations, after Canada, which shippers usually consider part of the domestic market, said Joel Nelsen, president of Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual.


Industrywide, he estimated that 25% of California-grown navels and up to 35% of lemons are exported.


“There is a risk sending to export,” said Steve Nelsen, managing partner at Valhalla Sales & Marketing Co., Kingsburg. “(But) if there is maximization for a return to our growers, we definitely will go export.”


Some overseas buyers already had contacted Nelsen by mid-September, and he said he was hopeful for a better year this year than last.


Traditionally, shipments have been heavy on navels at SunWest Fruit Co. Inc., Parlier, but sales manager Doug Sankey said he has seen more interest in mandarins in recent years, especially during the late season, when the w. murcott is available.


The firm exports about 10% of its volume, mostly to Asian markets.


Sherman Oaks-based Sunkist Growers Inc. typically ships 35% of its volume overseas, estimated Claire Smith, director of corporate communications.


Southeast Asia is the company’s biggest market, and navel and valencia oranges, lemons and grapefruits are its most popular export commodities.


“Exports can be an important piece of the puzzle,” Jacobsen said.


Cecilia Packing exports to Japan, Korea, China and lesser amounts to Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, Jacobsen said.


Last year, Cecilia Packing exported about 15% of its volume, and that figure should be significantly higher this season, although Jacobsen was not sure in early fall how much higher it will be.


Some shippers export up to 70% of their volume, he said.


Exports can be a tricky business, Steve Nelsen said.


Often the deal starts off strong, he said, but in an effort to move volume in a hurry, too many growers sometimes turn to exports and quickly drag down the market.


“We just watch it really close,” he said.


Sankey said SunWest has been getting more requests for special packs, like European cartons, half cartons and custom pack styles.


Buyers also have been asking more questions lately about food safety practices and sustainability, and they are paying more attention to brix levels, how fruit is eating and how the citrus was planted and harvested, he said.


Joel Nelsen said the industry hopes to gain access to markets such as India and eastern Russia in the future, but U.S. growers face stiff competition from Spain and other European sources.