Mother Nature was not the California citrus growers’ friend during the 2018-19 citrus season. Harsh winds knocked fruit off trees and a lack of rain caused an overabundance of small-sized fruit. That meant less-than-normal quality and lower prices for most.
Jeff Olsen, president of the Visalia, CA-based Chuck Olsen Co. noted that as of late October, most in the citrus industry were keeping a watchful eye on the weather, but fluctuations of 30 degrees between day and night in the fall have helped to bring on great color for citrus.
“Most of the Chilean navels are sticking around, but we’re not going to see any major overlap from that, so the California citrus market should be strong,” he said.
Then there’s the dreaded ACP, a tiny, aphid-sized insect that first made its way to California in 2008. Aside from damaging the new leaves of citrus trees, it also carries the bacterium that causes huanglongbing (HLB) disease, also known as citrus greening.
Those in the citrus industry are doing what they can to stay on top of this.
Victoria Hornbaker, director of the recently formed Citrus Pest and Disease Prevention Division within the California Department of Food and Agriculture, said they are currently conducting a risk assessment and an intense delimitation any time it finds an HLB tree in the ground, or if they detect an ACP carrying the bacteria that causes HLB.
“We’re up to 1,650 detections in total and those are mandatorily removed for the most part,” Hornbaker said. “We have not detected HLB or an Asian citrus psyllid carrying the bacteria in a commercial grove at this point.”
Beyond defending against disease, freshness of fruit is also of paramount importance.
Jaclyn Johnston Green, operations manager for the Edison, CA-based Johnston Farms, said most people can tell the difference between an old orange and something that’s fresh, even if it’s just a couple of days difference, and that’s why it’s imperative that the freshest citrus makes its way to the supermarket shelves.
“People will continue to buy if they know what they have is the freshest they can get,” she said.
Display bins are always popular and push the citrus, and Green would like to see these efforts continued to promote citrus within the boxes, so consumers can see the graphics and see first-hand how fresh the products are.
Olsen said pricing is the biggest issue because between labor and merchandising, retailers sometimes balk at the prices of citrus.
“It’s a tough world and everything costs so much to do — to grow product, to move product, to put product on the shelf,” she said. “If the retailers are reasonably priced, it will sell.”