What's bright orange, fits in a pocket, easy to peel and has marketing potential in the United States?

If you answered "mandarin oranges," you would be right, according to local food systems researchers at the University of California's sustainable agriculture program.

"Rising demand for mandarins in the U.S. is related to their developing reputation as a healthy, easy-to-eat food, and the fact that more Americans are including greater amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables in their diet," says Gail Feenstra, food systems analyst for the Davis-based statewide UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program.

The world supply of mandarins is showing an upward trend as they become more popular, but the United States is far behind other regions in production, she says.

Feenstra and graduate researchers Heather Ricks and Erin Derden-Little have completed a report on the marketing potential for mandarin growers in Placer County just east of Sacramento, Calif. The researchers found that Placer County growers are boosting production to fill the growing demand for the fruit in the United States while creating more demand for mandarins through marketing.

"Even though we can see production beginning to increase, growers and other ag experts sense that the local market for mandarins has barely been tapped," says Derden-Little. "The main objective of this project is to identify and assess potential marketing strategies for mandarin growers in Placer County."

Americans eat about 3 pounds of mandarins per year, most of which are consumed fresh, according to the report.

China, Spain and Japan are the top three world producers, growing almost 60 percent of all tangerines (a variety of mandarin). California is among the leaders in increased acreage planted to mandarins in the United States, with Placer County ranking fifth in production in the state.

Per-capita consumption in Placer County was up to almost 4 pounds last year, according to Derden-Little.

The UC SAREP report also outlines opportunities for mandarin growers, Feenstra says. "We note that there is a marketing opportunity in educating consumers about the unique flavor of mountain-grown mandarins and the support they can provide by buying local produce," she says. "Other opportunities for growers include using Internet Web sites for advertising and sales, and capitalizing on direct retail sales and agricultural tourism."

The report is part of UC SAREP's participation in a mult-istate research project funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.