Eleven years after the University of Florida released two early maturing orange varieties, growers and nurserymen say they have enough experience with them to know their upsides as well as their downsides.

The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred released Earlygold and Vernia in 1999 after Bill Castle, a horticulture professor at the center, evaluated them.

Earlygold: strong on color, weak against disease

Phil Rucks, owner of Phillip Rucks Citrus Nursery in Frostproof, says growers don’t have many varieties to choose from in October, November or December. He says Hamlin, which makes up the bulk of early season oranges, is a seedless fruit that doesn’t have good color. But its pounds solids are reasonable, averaging 5.5 to 6.

The Earlygold variety is suited to the not-from-concentrate juice market because of its early maturity that precedes Hamlins and good juice color and flavor, Castle says.

For the U.S. Department of Agriculture to classify juice as Grade A, it must receive a color score of at least 36. Hamlins often can’t make that color score, so its juice has to be blended.

“Earlygold, when harvested at the right time, will have a juice color score of 36 or above, so that provides an advantage,” he says.

This high color score was recognized and led to initial high demand. According to the Bureau of Citrus Budwood Registration in Winter Haven, Earlygold ranked 11th during its release year in 1999 with 69,113 trees propagated. The variety made it as high as third with 402,824 trees propagated during its third year in 2001.

But that doesn’t mean Earlygold is going to overtake Hamlin anytime soon. Two drawbacks have emerged for Earlygold.

First, color isn’t the only factor influencing juice sales. Castle says sugar content is high on the priority list, and Hamlins are very productive in that regard. Rucks says growers are always paid on pounds solids and sugar, not color.

Even more of a drawback is Earlygold’s susceptibility to disease, mainly canker. Rucks says Earlygold is vigorous, which increases its chances for the disease.

“It has more flush more frequently, so it is more vulnerable to canker,” he says. “A Valencia might only flush four times a year, but a Hamlin and an Earlygold will flush six or seven times a year. Until we find a cure for canker, I don’t think it will be propagated as much.”

Statistics support his assessment. Michael Kesinger, bureau chief, says propagation of Earlygold has decreased in recent years, and only 124,123 trees have been propagated during the past five years combined.

Vernia: excellent fruit but low price

For all practical purposes, Vernia is an early maturing Valencia-type orange, Castle says. It is precocious, high yielding, matures in January and February a bit ahead of the Valencia crop, and has juice with good flavor and color.

Lory Durrance, a banker at Wauchula State Bank in Wauchula, also is a citrus grower with a 20-acre block of Vernia trees on Benton rootstock planted in 1998. Castle says it is the oldest block of Vernia in the state. Durrance specifically selected the variety based on the tree’s characteristics.

“It is very productive, it has the highest color score of any orange in production at its time, it is a beautifully colored orange, is good-tasting and has very few seeds,” Durrance says. “At nine years of production, my grove produced 800 boxes per acre.”

Durrance says he has harvested the fruit as early as January and as late as mid-March. Rucks says this timing can be a major benefit for growers. Freezes can still hit the state in late February or early March, so a grower can get his fruit off before the final threat of cold temperatures.

That timing has turned into a Catch-22. The variety is considered a Valencia-type, but not a true Valencia, so it is categorized as a mid-season orange. This classification fetches lower prices than what most growers think the juice is worth.

Rucks says the early to mid prices typically run 15 to 20 cents less per pound than Valencia premiums, or $1 to $1.20 less per box.

“You can’t sell the juice for a Valencia price, because it is considered a mid-season orange. But it has a color score higher than some Valencia’s on the market today,” Durrance says.

Castle says that early on, the Vernia was being treated as an early Valencia-type orange and being compensated as such.

“But now there is apparently some interest among processors to classify it as a mid-season orange because of its time of maturity,” he says. “It is a high-quality orange, and growers would like to be paid high-quality orange prices.”

Despite the lower price, Vernia appears to show the most promise of the two varieties. Kesinger says Vernia was the fifth most popular citrus variety propagated during the 2008-2009 fiscal year. In the past five years combined, he says 116,503 Vernia trees have been propagated, and the variety is the second most popular mid-season variety propagated, right behind Midsweet.