your-news image

Navel loss to freeze damage could be one-third or more, as prices start to rise

One month after the week-long hard freeze in the citrus-growing areas of central California, growers were continuing to assess damage. While no figures were yet available for the industry as a whole, the effects of the widespread freeze were extremely variable, with damage ranging from negligible in some blocks to extensive in other blocks.

Unofficially, as of early January it was appearing that the total loss to the remaining on-tree crop could be 30 percent or more.

"We are hoping to have something by the end of this month," Bob Blakely, director of industry relations for California Citrus Mutual in Exeter, CA, told The Produce News Jan. 6. "We have questionnaires out now. We have people getting back to us with information. We are going to try to pin down a number" within the next two or three weeks."

Even then, it will be a range, not an exact figure, "but hopefully we will have a tight range that we are comfortable with," he said. Based on the information received so far from growers, "we are finding everything from almost no damage to complete losses in different blocks, and sometimes they are not that far apart. It has really been difficult to come up with a good number."

The shortage resulting from the freeze was not felt prior to the holidays, as growers harvested as much fruit as they could prior to the freeze to assure being able to meet commitments for the holiday season.

Prices held fairly steady through the holidays as contracts were honored. As is normal, demand dropped immediately following the holiday pull but was starting to build again in early January, and growers say prices were beginning to rise at least partly due to the anticipation of tighter supplies through the balance of the season.

The extent of the freeze damage this year has been difficult to assess, according to Blakely. The weather has been fairly warm since the freeze, and "we keep thinking with these warm days it is going to start exacerbating the damage" on the freeze-damaged fruit, making it easier to separate out. But "we are not seeing a lot of differentiation yet. We are still working on it."

The industry is taking great care to assure that only sound fruit is packed and shipped, so most of the fruit currently being harvested is from the least damaged blocks, and everything is inspected before shipping.

"They inspect it as it is going across the line, and they look at it again in the finished carton," Blakely said. "So there is really a lot of effort going into keeping bad fruit off the market. The focus, certainly, is on keeping the quality standards high" and assuring that what does go into the box is good quality, because "the last thing that anybody in the industry wants is to get damaged fruit into the marketplace."

Currently, "we are seeing good utilization on the fruit that is being packed, but that is not really indicative" of the remaining crop, Blakely said. Packinghouses are "out looking for their best fruit right now."

In general, blocks that got colder and have more damage will not be picked and packed until the damaged fruit has differentiated itself and is easier to sort out. However, fruit from the most severely damaged blocks will not be packed fresh at all but will be stripped off and sent directly to the juice market.

Booth Ranches LLC in Orange Cove, CA, is looking at an estimated 30-40 percent loss on its Navels due to the freeze, according to Isak Du Toit, vice president of export marketing.

"That's our early stuff we are getting in," he said Jan. 6. "Some blocks are coming in with almost no damage at all. Some are coming with little and some with up to 40 percent. It just depends on where your block was and how cold it got in that specific area."

Fruit from the better blocks "looks good, eats good and packs out good," he said. In lots that have more damage, "you just have to work with it to get the damaged fruit out" and give the consumer a good box of fruit. "We want people to keep buying, so we want to be sure that we put good fruit on the market."

Du Toit expected Booth Ranches to have "good fruit for the rest of the season."Where there is more damage in a bin of harvested fruit, you just have to handle a little bit more to get the same amount out in the end."

So far, "consumers seem to be happy with what we've put out there, so we are just going to continue to grade it hard and make sure we get all the bad ones out," he said.

Prices on Navels were "going up slightly," he said. "The domestic market has gone up maybe $2 a box," but export prices have held steady since the start of the season.

The extent of damage "varies considerably depending on where you were in the state," said Harley Phillips, a salesman at Johnston Farms in Edison, CA. "You had some areas that were extremely cold and with some extreme damage. You had other areas where there was virtually no damage. I imagine anyone with any amount of acreage suffered some kind of damage in the coldest spots, the lower spots. Our guess for our area is that we are probably going to wind up with about 35 percent loss of the entire crop."

It was, Phillips said, the earliest crop-damaging freeze he can remember.

Johnston Farms has harvested fruit from some groves that "we are packing very successfully" and others that "we sent straight to the juice factory." Then there are some lots with a fair amount of damage that "later on can be run and separated, but that ability hasn't manifested itself yet," he said.

Prices on smaller sizes "have jumped up pretty sharply," Phillips said. That is due partly to the freeze but also "due to the fact that they were scarce this year to begin with. Currently "you've got, generally speaking, one price for Fancy fruit, all sizes," he said Jan. 6.

Mandarins, which are more cold-sensitive than Navels, were generally more severely damaged, "but here again that depends on who you talk to," Phillips said. "We suffered virtually no damage in any of our Mandarins in this area," although the company also has Mandarin growers further north "who got burned pretty good."