California kiwifruit growers anticipate volumes closer to normal after a crop last year that exceeded 9 million 7-pound tray equivalents.

Production is forecast at 6.5 million for the upcoming season that runs from October to May, according to the Sacramento, Calif.-based Kiwifruit Administrative Committee, the federal marketing order that was left after the California Kiwifruit Commission was disbanded last year.

Record production in California was about 12 million tray equivalents in the mid-1990s, according to the committee.

“Last year was a particularly large crop, so compared to this year, it’s quite a bit smaller,” said Nick Matteis, the committee’s assistant director.

California’s kiwifruit acreage has shrunk to about 4,000 acres, from around 8,000 about a decade ago, although production volume has not dwindled proportionately, Matteis said.

“Over the past few years, we’ve seen improved cultural practices improving yield on the same acreage, so we’ve seen an uptick in the baseline crop, or a normal expectant crop,” he said.

Production in the normal range would be 6.5 million to 7.5 million tray equivalents, Matteis said.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as of Sept. 5, 19.8-pound containers of loose hayward variety kiwifruit from Chile were priced at $15-16 for sizes 25 and 27; $14-15, 30s; $13-15, 33s; $13-14, 36s; $12-13, 39s; and $11-12, 42s and 45s.

A year earlier, prices were in a similar range, from $14-15 in size 25 to $11-12, size 45.

About 75% of California’s crop — the state accounts for 98% of U.S. production — goes to the domestic market, according to the kiwifruit committee. Mexico and Canada are by far the two dominant export markets, Matteis said.

Large-size premiums

Growers anticipate a smaller crop — and stronger markets.

“We will start California kiwi in the first week of October, and the market should be strong as the crop will be down 15% to 20% from last year,” said Chris Kragie, deciduous fruit manager with Madera, Calif.-based Western Fresh Marketing.

Vancouver, British Columbia-based The Oppenheimer Group plans to ship the standard green hayward variety out of California and green and gold fruit from Italy this year, said Steve Woodyear-Smith, category director for kiwifruit.

“Industrywide, volume from both origins will be down on last year due to weather conditions, so the market could be strong through the fall and winter months,” he said.

There should be plenty of fruit to meet all customer needs, he said.

“We expect that the California fruit will peak smaller than last season, so larger sizes should earn a premium,” he said.

The Wenatchee, Wash., office of The Giumarra Cos. anticipates its first California shipments in mid-October, said Jason Bushong, salesman.

“We’ll go through the first part of February,” he said.

“We have quite a few good retail programs that get us through OK.”

Pest watch

Growers say they have been watching, with some concern, progress in fighting pseudomonas syringae pv actinidiae, a kiwifruit vine-killing disease that has hit gold varieties in New Zealand and Italy with particular force.

California produces the green hayward variety, which is more amenable to the Golden State’s climate, growers said.

“It’s similar to fire blight we get on asian pears and apples, and it’s affecting only gold production,” said Doug Phillips, owner of Phillips Farms Marketing in Visalia, Calif.

Waiting game

California growers are content to wait until most of the Chilean and New Zealand crops had moved out of the U.S. market before beginning peak shipments, said Kurt Cappelluti, sales manager with Madera-based Stellar Distributing Inc.

“It always affects what we do with the California deal,” he said.

If the market is weak, it might pay off to wait a bit, Cappelluti said.

“We might want to hold on and not hurry in,” he said.

Quality shouldn’t be an issue, said Mike Noland, president of Wild River Marketing Inc., Marysville, Calif.

“We are very happy with the color and the overall appearance of our fruit,” he said.