Some $28 million in wind machines and water appear to have saved the $2 billion California citrus crop from a mid-January freeze that lasted six consecutive nights.
No major damage was reported to the 63 million cartons of navels still on the trees when the temperature sank into the mid-20s.
“We’re still expecting an estimated 88 million cartons of navels for the season,” said Joel Nelsen, president of Exter-based California Citrus Mutual.
Rains before the freeze were expected to pump up the size of the fruit, which began the season small.
Nelsen said it would take several weeks to assess the damage to more fragile mandarins and lemons.
“There will be some damage to our mandarins,” Fred Berry, marketing director for Mulholland Citrus, Orange Cove, Calif., said on Jan. 15.
“But we’re moving right along, harvesting in fields where maturity levels are the highest.”
Compared to a year ago, Barry said the crop was in considerably better shape when the frost hit — the fruit was stronger and more mature, allowing the sugar to act as a natural antifreeze.
Nelsen said initial estimates called for 50 million 5-pound cartons of California mandarins.
“That will increase next year as new acreage is harvested and younger trees will produce more fruit as they mature,” he said.
Neil Galone, vice president of sales and marketing for Orange Cove-based Booth Ranches, said navel prices have been “pretty good” considering the large crop and small fruit size, and they represent a great value when compared to this year’s higher apple prices.
Galone recommended produce managers create big displays of great-looking navels to attract consumer attention and highlight the quality of the fruit.
In Texas, where grapefruit makes up 70% of the citrus crop, the drought continues in the south but the weather has cooperated to create a small but fancy crop, said Trent Bishop, vice president of sales for Lone Star Citrus Growers in Mission.
“We finally received rains we hope will size up the second half of the crop,” Bishop said.
Following on the heels of a strong California summer market, Bishop said the market for Texas fruit has been strong and prices are slightly above average.
The challenge, he said, has been to find a happy medium for retailers since there’s little choice fruit available to bag, which typically moves a lot of volume.
Jeff Arnold, general manager of Edinburgh Citrus Association in Edinburgh, Texas, said demand for oranges and grapefruit was strong through December and is “kicking up a notch” in January.
“We’re excited about the growth we’re experiencing,” said Edinburgh salesman Jeff Husfeld.
In Florida, meanwhile, acreage is down and growers continue to battle disease and the weather, which has been hotter and drier than normal.
“We desperately need cooler weather to color up our honey tangerines,” said Al Finch, vice president of sales and marketing for Florida Classic Growers, Lake Hamilton, Fla., the marketing arm of the Dundee Citrus Growers Association.
“It has slowed our movement down tremendously,” he said in mid-January.
The lack of rainfall has led to smaller-sized red grapefruit, Finch said.
“We’re peaking on size 56, 48 and 40, but there’s good volume available for 5-pound bags,” he said.
Vero Beach, Fla.-based Seald Sweet International is also offering good deals on 5-pound bags of smaller red grapefruit, said Florida citrus manager Dave Brocksmith.
Brocksmith expected the pent-up demand for Florida tangerines to ease by the end of January, and said midseason oranges are reaching maturity,
“Because we don’t have the competitive pressures we had last year from the processors, we have a lot of good oranges this year for fresh pack and we’re doing a lot of 4-pound bag programs with our retail customers,” he said.