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Smaller California citrus crop, better prices expected this season

With a final production of about 94 million cartons, the 2015/16 California navel crop was the second largest on record. This year’s crop is expected to be 10-15 percent smaller topping out near the 84 million carton mark.

“With a smaller crop, we are expecting the market structure to be better with better returns to the grower,” said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual in Visalia, CA.

The longtime top executive for that grower-based association said growers need better per acre returns this year to offset increases in costs. Three areas where growers have seen significant increases are in the battle to keep citrus greening out of California groves, the cost of water as California tries to survive its fifth straight year of drought, and the increasing number of regulations, including new overtime laws, that continue to drive up costs on many fronts.

Before delving into the issues, Nelsen noted that the navel orange crop itself as well as the specialty citrus – led by mandarin oranges – are progressing very well. Harvesting and shipping of navel oranges were expected to begin prior to the end of October with mandarin shipments already under way.   Nelsen said California enjoys its status as the number one producer of fresh market citrus in the United States. While early shipping numbers on the mandarins have been down a bit, he said as that crop matures, the numbers are expected to pick up.

Of course, the big concern in every citrus producing region in the United States and even around the world is citrus greening. In a nutshell, the Asian citrus psyllid feeds on citrus leaves and stems, and can infect citrus trees with a bacteria that causes a serious plant disease called Huanglongbing, also known as HLB or citrus greening disease. The disease has taken hold in Florida causing devastating results. The citrus crop is in major decline with its mostly juice orange crop down 70 percent in about a decade. It took about six years after the psyllid and HLB was detected for the declines to begin. Texas is now in its sixth year of detection and it has yet to experience the decline in production. The Texas industry is hoping it was able to get ahead of the problem a little bit better than Florida, which did not realize it was a problem until well after the disease was established and being spread through new plantings.

“We hope to have learned by their experiences,” said Nelsen.

The California industry is aggressively pursuing the psyllid. Thus far it has been discovered in backyards in Los Angeles County and to a lesser extent in Ventura County. There has also been some psyllid finds in the Southern San Joaquin Valley city of Bakersfield. When a tree is found to be infected, there is a program in place to immediately remove the tree. In fact, all 28 Los Angeles County trees carrying the disease have been removed. Nelson said in Southern California it is an education issue as much as anything else as there are more individual homeowner trees in Los Angeles and Orange counties than there are commercial trees in the San Joaquin Valley. There is much information being broadcast to those homeowners teaching them how to identify the issue, and a budget in place to remove those trees. CCM is working with several partners on this effort including Bayer CropScience.

The industry is also enacting aggressive preventative measures this year mandating that all fruit moving from the field to the packing house will be tarped. In addition, all bins will be cleaned of all debris before returning to the field.   As mentioned, the psyllid feeds on stems and leaves but can “hitchhike“ from one area to the next in bins and trucks.

CCM also has a coordinated treatment program involving both spraying and the release of beneficials to knock down the population of psyllids. “We have released millions of beneficials in L.A. County,” said Nelsen.

At this point, Nelsen said there is no solution to citrus greening, though the citrus industry all over the world is moving down many research paths looking for a cure. “We are trying to stay ahead of the situation. In Florida they didn’t know they had a problem.”

He noted that “dilution is the solution” meaning CCM is eliminating the psyllid and trees where they are found, and will eliminate trees very aggressively if and when they are discovered in commercial groves.

With the citrus greening being so potentially devastating, it does rise to the top of the concern list and probably occupies the first four or five slots. But lack of water and continuing regulations are also exacting a toll. California did get some rain this past year that did fill some reservoirs. So the water situation is not as acute as last year but getting sufficient water is still an expensive proposition. And another year of drought will compound the problem.

The biggest regulatory concern has to do with the passage of a new law that lowers the threshold for overtime pay for agricultural workers. For generations the seasonality and perishability of agricultural products has led to different wage laws. Because the work is often truncated, overtime pay had its own scale. The California Legislature passed a new law that normalizes agricultural overtime pay with that in other industries. With labor increasingly hard to find, the industry said the ultimate result will be increased cost, and quite possibly, an exodus from the state by some growers. It’s no secret that other states and countries offer a lower cost structure to grow citrus and many other crops.