It has, in general, been a very good growing season for California citrus, according to industry sources, and that is creating good quality crops with exceptional flavor characteristics.
In the Navels, the crop volume is expected to be down from last year and down a bit from the average of the last several years, but with larger fruit sizes than a year ago and earlier-than-normal maturity.
“It is going to be a smaller [Navel] crop than we have had in recent years,” said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual. “This year, we expect out of the San Joaquin Valley somewhere in the neighborhood of 84 million cartons. We’ve been closer to 90 million in recent years.”
On the other hand, he said, growers are excited about the crop because “during the summer we had a lot of heat, and that heat usually triggers good flavor components.”
The eating quality of California table grapes generally serves as a good barometer each year for the coming Navel crop, Nelsen observed. “If the grapes are sweet, you can count on the citrus being sweet, and the grapes had excellent flavor this year.”
Preliminary tests show that “we’ve got some good tasting fruit out there,” he said.
The size structure of the fruit is favorable, Nelsen continued. “There are fewer pieces on a tree,” so the average size is a little bigger than last year. “They are going to start off 88s and a lot of 72s, we believe. That is always a good sign.” With normal fall rainfall to help the fruit grow, “we should easily peak at 72s and 56s” over the course of the season.
“We are going to start picking fruit next week,” he said. “We are set up for a good season from a quality standpoint. Exterior quality is very good. The [growers] are real diligent in their farming practices. So that is all looking good for the Navels.”
In Mandarins, Nelsen said, the story is similar except that volume is expected to be up because of young acreage coming into fuller production. “You’ve got more pieces of fruit coming in, so we anticipate a larger seedless mandarin crop,” and preliminary measurements “indicate a larger piece of fruit.”
The new crop and lemon harvest was already under way, “and that has started out a hot rocket,” Nelsen said. “The quality is good. We’ve got some good fruit coming out of Arizona and Imperial County [CA]. Last year, we didn’t have that much” due to weather problems.
Because of young plantings, there is more acreage of lemons in production this year, “particularly in the San Joaquin Valley and in Imperial County, so supplies should be good,” he said.
This will be the second year for the industry’s new California Standard, Nelsen said. Last year, it “achieved the positive benefit that we had hoped,” which is to assure that early season fruit is not shipped before it has matured enough to give consumers a good eating experience. Last year, “we began moving a better-tasting piece of fruit into the market from day one, and that stimulated demand all the way through the Christmas holidays.”
The California Standard, adopted after extensive consumer research, takes into account more flavor components than just sugar content and sugar-acid ratio. Juice, aroma, and other factors are also considered.
According to Neil Galone, vice president of marketing at Booth Ranches LLC in Orange Cove, CA, flavor would not have been an issue in the early season last year in any case, as the fruit was “well above the California standard” from the start. He expects that also to be the case this year.
But “in years when you have color and you are waiting on flavor, that is really when the California standard kicks in. Under the previous maturity requirements, fruit could be shipped that was “just barely making the minimum and wasn’t very good.” However, in years when “we actually had the flavor in advance of the color,” the flavor was “pretty good” even on the first shipments. This year will be another year when “the flavor will be absolutely no issue.”
“Having said that,” Galone continued, he does not expect flavor to ever be much of an issue anymore, “because of the change to the California standard.”
Crop yields vary, of course, from grower to grower and from ranch to ranch. “The crop I see here is a little larger than it was a year ago,” said Dennis Johnston, a partner in Johnston Farms in Edison, CA. It also appeared to be about a week early.
The Mandarin crop “looks excellent at this point in time,” said David Kraus, president of Paramount Citrus Cooperative in Delano, CA, Oct. 16. “Maturity looks to be about a week earlier than normal.”
In Navels, he said, “the crop volume is down,” but he said he would characterize the crop not as short but as “very manageable total volume and bigger size structure.”