Smaller sizing, volumes may bring early end to California navelsThe California navel orange deal enters its final months with volumes tapering off, which could end production ahead of past expectations.

“Traditionally we have navels, at least in minimal supplies, until the Fourth of July,” said Joel Nelsen, president of Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual. “This year it appears we’re going to wind up a bit early. The crop is picking as much as 5% to 10% lighter than we anticipated.”

“Most packers will end by early to mid-June,” said Rick Osterhues, vice president of sales and marketing at Lindsay-based LoBue Citrus. “We’ll go through May with the navels. There will be a few who go into June.”

Entering the deal, the estimate on California navel production was 90 million cartons. It’s unclear what the final numbers will be, but 84 million seems probable, Nelsen said.

“Lack of rain hurt fruit sizing,” he said. “You’re getting more pieces of fruit into a carton, so there are fewer cartons to move.”

As April began, Orange Cove-based Booth Ranches LLC had about 25% of its navel crop yet to harvest, said Tracy Jones, vice president of domestic sales.

“We lost a small percentage due to the (January) freeze, but our volume is about where we projected,” she said.

The state’s citrus growers sank $28 million into frost protection in one week of January, Nelsen said, and the season total is around $30 million. The reduced production that followed various weather issues left some growers hoping to recoup such expenses with higher prices for the Easter holiday.

It didn’t happen, but prices are starting to inch up, Bob Blakely, director of industry relations for California Citrus Mutual, said April 9.

“We hoped for better, but we are starting to see some improvement in prices,” he said. “We anticipate that will gradually continue on through the end of the season.”

Shipments of late navel varieties in small volumes were underway in early April and will come to dominate the final weeks, Blakely said.

Shipping point prices for 7/10 bushel cartons of first grade California navels were mostly $15.75 to $16.80 for 48s and 56s on April 8, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Year-ago prices varied by just five cents or less.

Mandarins will finish up for most growers by May 1, Osterhues said.

“They look like they’re going to have a decent season,” Blakely said. “We had an oversupply of smaller fruit on mandarins and navels that depressed prices. Even so, volume on mandarins is making up for some of that. The yields on mandarins are up just because there’s more young fruit coming in.”

Some companies, like Sunkist Growers, were already shipping valencias for export in March. Industrywide, significant domestic volumes will wait until May, Blakely said.