(Dec. 18) Spain exported more than 50,000 metric tons of clementines to the U.S. in six of the past seven years, but the foreign fruit is facing mounting pressure from California’s growing crop.

“My personal feeling is that at first, and possibly for the next year or so, there will be a complementary effect of the domestic crop that will increase awareness of the item and overall consumption,” said Mike Kostick, citrus category manager of The Oppenheimer Group, Vancouver, British Columbia. “That likely will then turn into a cannibalization of the import sector as the years go on.”

Kostick’s comments followed the Spanish Citrus Management Commission’s recommendation in late November that exporters take a hard look at the U.S. market and the potential threat posed by California.

It would not be the first time that European exporters lost U.S. market share to increased North American supply.

Fried De Schouwer, vice president of sales and marketing for Greenhouse Produce Co. LLC, Mission, Texas, said European greenhouse shippers lost about 95% of their U.S. markets during a 10-year period because of increased competition from North American producers.

“It takes a while,” De Schouwer said. “You have the research stage, the development stage and the commodity stage. Once you get things in full swing, there’s no stopping it.”

California’s clementine crop is in that third stage and is growing.

Tristan Kieva, vice president of marketing for Los Angeles-based Sun Pacific Shippers, said the state’s production could triple within the next three years.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture does not track domestic clementine production, but numbers provided by the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service California Field Office show that there were more than 1,000 acres of clementines planted in each of the past three years and four of the past six. According to NASS, there were 2,695 acres of clementines in production in California last year and 5,285 nonbearing acres.

Doug Sankey, sales manager for Sunwest Fruit Co. Inc., Parlier, Calif., said the company’s clementine sales are growing at a rate of 15% a year, and he expects that rate to hold for at least the next five years.

“There’s a lot of it in the ground,” Sankey said of maturing orchards. “The next five years are going to be interesting.”

California’s product also is improving, Kostick said.

“Early on, California was not much of a factor as growers were dabbling with clementines and did not have the science of it correct,” said Kostick, whose employer imports clementines but does not source from California. “This has changed. The fruit is coming on, and the characteristics of the fruit have gotten quite a bit better. I do not see how it can not impact the importers as time goes on.”

Spain’s season runs from November through February, while California’s deal lasts from November into April. Despite competing seasons, Spain has been sending clementines to the U.S. since 1984.

The import deal grew dramatically in the second half of the 1990s, increasing from 14,000 metric tons worth $15.2 million in 1995 to 83,631 metric tons worth $99.3 million in 2000, according to the USDA.

Numbers dipped in the 2001-02 seasons when problems with Mediterranean fruit fly larvae led to a temporary ban, but import sales topped $100 million in 2003 and 2005.

“If anything, I think California is helping,” said Ed Figueroa, category manager for New York-based LGS Specialty Sales Ltd. “More people are eating clementines. It’s a good piece of fruit from California. In the past, the Northeast was eating everything that came in. If anything, I think demand is increasing.”

But that complementary effect, with California supplying the West Coast and Spain supplying the East Coast, might not last much longer because of increasing domestic supply.

“We’re moving further east each year,” Sankey said. “The Midwest used to be the dividing line, but now we have stuff going to places like New York, Boston and Florida.”

Domestic crop squeezes Spanish clementines
Tristan Kieva, vice president of marketing for Los Angeles-based Sun Pacific Shippers, says California clementine production could triple within three years.