Buyers of oranges will find California late navels aren’t nearly as late this year as they’ve come to expect, a result of the December freeze that wiped out $441 million worth of San Joaquin Valley citrus.

Bob Blakely, director of industry relations for Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual, said most houses were done by June 1. That fruit typically ships up to the Fourth of July holiday.

Freeze, drought squeeze California oranges“It might provide some opportunities for valencia business domestically that we typically don’t have,” Blakely said. “That would probably depend on when the southern hemisphere navels start coming into the market.”

Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based Sunkist Growers projected an early June end for navels, said Joan Wickham, manager for advertising and public relations.

Sunkist’s valencias were hitting export markets as early as late February, with domestic demand still to come. “We expect to have supply throughout the summer and into late September or early October,” Wickham said.

California valencia volume is estimated at about 24 million cartons by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, down from 25 million last year on roughly 2,000 fewer acres.

“Valencias have fallen out of favor as a fresh product in the summertime,” Blakely said. “Ever since we started seeing summer imports of navels from the southern hemisphere, the navel is just a preferred fresh eating orange. Valencias are kind of phasing out as we move more to the mandarins.”

Mandarins lost 4.7 million 40-pound cartons in the December freeze, or $150 million, bringing that fruit as well to an early end.

“Valencias still have a good market in foodservice,” Blakely said. “It’s an affordable piece of fruit to use for those purposes.”

Elsewhere in the citrus category, Sunkist Growers expects to ship its California Star Ruby grapefruit through July, when its Summer Marsh Ruby variety comes online. Sunkist’s late-season mandarin, Gold Nugget, began shipping the first week of April; it normally goes through May.


Citrus and drought

Despite the drought that left many California growers facing zero water allocations, citrus was likely to see little harm in the transition from spring to summer. But trouble isn’t far off.

“Some growers are very concerned about what’s coming up this summer,” Blakely said. “In bloom, temperatures are mild and there’s still good moisture for the trees to draw. But there will be groves that don’t have any water. Terra Bella is one district that won’t have any. Several hundred acres of citrus there don’t have wells.”

“We’re seeing growers starting to accelerate tree removal programs,” he said. “If they have any water at all they’re going to put it on other grounds. They’ll either stop putting money into it if they have no water, or if it’s a block that had water they may divert that water to younger or higher-producing trees. It’s going to be a very difficult year.”