Dry weather, water issues could produce mixed results

04/30/2013 02:33:00 PM
Mike Hornick and Vicky Boyd

California’s dry winter cut into citrus production and created uncertainties for the state’s melon deal as summer approached, but table grapes appear poised for an encore to last year’s record crop.

Meanwhile stone fruit supplies have nowhere to go but up, barring a repeat of last year’s freak hail storm. Growers are hoping volumes return to normal in that category. And the state’s blueberries are surging as young plants come online, while strawberries’ usual peak months have begun.

Citrus may be smaller

Subpar winter rains brought down fruit size on navel oranges.

The state crop, earlier estimated at 90 million cartons, may finish around 84 million, Joel Nelsen, president of Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual, said in late March.

Navels should continue through mid-June.

With 1,000 fewer acres in production this year — resuming a long-term downward trend as growers switch to other varieties — summer valencias are projected to come in at 25 million 40-pound cartons, down from 28 million a year ago.

Water cuts hit melons

In the Westside melon deal, growers got bad news March 22 when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced federal water allocations would be 20% of normal, down from earlier estimates of 35% to 40%.

“Guys are struggling with half the water they thought they were going to have a couple of months ago,” said Steve Patricio, president and chief executive officer of Westside Produce, Firebaugh.

That’s bound to have impacts on summer volumes, Patricio said, but some could be positive if growers of more demanding crops replace them with melons, which need less water.

California production of cantaloupe, honeydew and watermelon begins in Imperial Valley in early May. Some desert growers can run all the way to July Fourth. Bakersfield starts the last week of June and goes to mid-July.

Large table grape crop

Table grapes posted a record 101.5 million boxes shipped last season, according to the Fresno-based California Table Grape Commission.

With more acreage coming on, the industry could expect another large crop, said George Matoian, sales and marketing director for Kingsburg, Calif.-based Visalia Produce Sales Inc.

In late March, bud breaks were as even as he’d seen them in years, Matoian said. That portends uniform crop maturation.

Demand remains strong despite last year’s record volume, said Rick Paul, sales executive director for Bakersfield, Calif.-based Sun World International LLC.

Coachella Valley expects to start table grapes production in mid-May. The San Joaquin Valley could start as soon as late June.

Stone fruit returns to normal

Stone fruit growers in some pockets of the San Joaquin Valley suffered up to 90% losses last year from weather damage. The early consensus on pack-out this season is from 40 million to 43 million boxes, close to what it’s been most of the past five years.

“It’s looking like a good, solid crop but not an overabundant crop — kind of a return to normal,” said Don Goforth, director of marketing for Reedley, Calif.-based Family Tree Farms Inc.

West Coast retailers should see stone fruit from the southern San Joaquin Valley arriving in early May and higher volumes before Memorial Day, said John Thiesen, division manager of Giumarra Bros. Fruit Co. Inc., Reedley, Calif.

Cherries should hit the market in time for Memorial Day, a holiday they’ve missed for the past three years, said Chance Kirk, director of retail and foodservice sales for Vincent B. Zaninovich & Sons Inc., Richgrove, Calif.

He based his projection on conditions in late March.

Berries looking good

The Watsonville-based California Strawberry Commission reported a 6.5% acreage increase in strawberries — most of it in Ventura County and Santa Maria.

There’s no crop estimate on strawberries, which are continuously blooming. But by April, Orange County, Ventura County, Santa Maria and Watsonville were simultaneously in production and peak season had begun.

Strawberries, which depend on groundwater irrigation, are less vulnerable to changing rainfall amounts than some other crops.

On blueberries, California’s window between crops in the Pacific Northwest and in Mexico and Chile to the south is attractive enough to encourage new production.

“Last year we finished at about 44 million pounds, and this year could be substantially higher,” Alex Ott, executive director of the Fresno-based California Blueberry Commission, said April 2. “Recently we became the fifth-largest producer of blueberries in the U.S.”

The blueberry deal, which runs April to June, is scattered from San Diego in the south to Corning in the north.



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