Excellent quality is driving strong demand for a big crop of California navels, shippers and officials say.

Despite increased competition from California clementines, navel prices are up compared to last year, said Neil Galone, vice president of sales and marketing for Booth Ranches, Orange Cove, Calif.

And that’s with a bigger crop.

“All in all it’s been a good start,” Galone said. “Demand has been steady from the beginning.”

With severe apple crop losses in Michigan and New York, Galone speculated that California navels could be benefitting from fewer apples than usual in some stores.

Excellent quality has been the main driver of the high demand, said Bob Blakely, director of industry relations for California Citrus Mutual, Exeter.

Movement as of the week of Nov. 26 was up 2%-4% over last year at the same time, Blakely said. The California navel industry is on track to produce about 93 million boxes of fruit in 2012-13, up from about 83 million boxes the year before and among the biggest crops on record.

“The fruit started off tasting very good, and it’s been reflected in the demand,” Blakely said. “We’ve had high packouts, good utilization. Everything’s looking really good.”

Galone reported good flavor and color and a fairly clean crop, with little scabbing reported as of the end of November.

Barney Evans, vice president of sales for Los Angeles-based Sun Pacific Shippers, said that despite increased competition from clementines, the 2012-13 season has gotten off to a good start.

“Overall, things are going pretty well,” he said. “Movement has been pretty good year-to-date.”

Galone expected markets to remain steady in the coming weeks.

“The truth is movement is good at these prices,” he said. “I’d be surprised if it strengthened, but I’m also not anticipating it getting any weaker.”

On Nov. 27, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported prices of $17-18.80 for 7/10 bushel cartons of California navels 72s, up from $14.73-16.75 last year at the same time.

Prices were stable on 72s and larger in late November, OK on 88s and unstable on 113s and larger, Evans said.

Industrywide, sizing has been a bit on the small side, with fruit peaking on 88s, Galone said. Booth Ranches, however, has had plenty of 72s and 56s, he said.

The small size profile could pose challenges for winter holiday promotions, Evans said.

November rains likely would help fruit size up, Blakely said.