Consumers appear to have enjoyed early navels picked using the California Standard.

The new maturity standard took effect this season after California growers watched pre-Christmas sales diminish in the past decade from 2 million cartons to 1 million cartons.

“There was a clear message there,” said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, Exeter.

“We’ve confirmed that if we put a consistently better-flavored piece of fruit in the marketplace at the beginning of the season, consumers will react positively,” Nelsen said.

The standard doesn’t mean some fruit is not getting harvested, he said, it means the fruit is getting harvested at a different time, or growers are harvesting in different places earlier.

While growers were concerned the standard would mean delaying the start of the season, it had no effect at all, said Neil Galone, vice president of sales and marketing for Orange Cove, Calif.-based Booth Ranches.

“Every year we either wait on color or we wait on flavor,” Galone said.

“This year we had excellent flavor long before we had acceptable color. As we waited for color, the flavor continued to improve.”

Retailers were happy to promote the early navels because customers were coming back for more, he said.

Nelsen said years of CCM research showed that the new generation of kids, who’ve eaten citrus from all over the world, have a different definition of flavor than their baby boomer parents.

“Their palates are a little more refined, and we had to adapt to it,” he said.

He said he’s proud of the fact that 95% of the industry supported the change.

“We’re going to monitor this for three years then decide whether it needs to be tweaked or if we were wrong,” Nelsen said.